Israel, Syria holding direct talks in Turkey
Prime Minister Olmert's aides meeting with senior Syrian officials in Ankara since Monday. Dramatic statement issued by three countries says 'Israel and Syria have launched peace negotiations mediated by Turkey in a bid to reach a comprehensive deal according to framework set at Madrid Conference.' Syrian foreign minister says Israel agreed to cede Golan; officials at PM's Office say do not recall such a commitment
Ynet has learned that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's associates, Yoram Turbowitz and Shalom Turgeman, have been meeting with senior Syrian officials in Ankara since Monday.
A dramatic statement issued simultaneously in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara said that "Israel and Syria have launched peace talks mediated by Turkey.
"The two sides have declared their intention to hold the negotiations in good faith and openly, and hold a serious and continuous dialogue in order to reach a comprehensive peace deal in accordance with the framework set at the (1991) Madrid Conference."
Following the announcement, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said that Israel had agreed to fully concede the Golan Heights.
Sources at the Prime Minister's Office told Ynet in response, "The negotiations are being held on the basis of the Madrid Conference principles. We do not recall an Israeli commitment at the conference to fully cede the Golan Heights."
Shortly before the announcement was released, the prime minister briefed Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Mossad and Shin Bet chief and the coalition leaders on the talks.
The Prime Minister's Office is currently waiting for the return of Turbowitz and Turgeman from Ankara in order "to learn of the achievements in the attempt to launch a communication channel with the Syrians mediated by Turkey."
High tensions on border
The indirect talks between Israel and Syria began in February 2007, when Olmert visited Ankara. In a face-to-face meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it was agreed that Turkey would mediate between the two countries in a bid to reach a peace agreement.
The prime minister entrusted his chief of staff Turbowitz and his diplomatic advisor Turgeman with the handling of the Turkish channel. The two recently travelled to Turkey several times and held direct talks with the authorities. Three weeks ago, a date was set for a meeting between representatives from both sides in Ankara.
As part of the preparations for the meeting, Olmert's aides collected all the material accumulated in the previous rounds of talks. The material was analyzed along with officials who were involved in the previous negotiations. In the past few days it eas decided to "hit the road" and release a joint official declaration.
According to a recent Turkish report, Israel agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement with Syria. Olmert, who was on vacation in the Golan at the time, did not deny the report, creating a political turmoil.
Meanwhile Wednesday, media outlets in Syria reported that a Syrian citizen from the village of Ghajar had been released from an Israeli jail. The man, Mohammed Abed Al-Shmali, was arrested in December 2003 on suspicion of delivering information to Hizbullah in exchange for an approval to sell drugs on the border. There are 13 more Syrian citizens jailed in Israel.
Roee Nahmias and news agencies contributed to this report