Israel and Syria agree to talk

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Under Turkish mediation Israel and Syria have finally agreed to talk about outstanding issues.
Professor David Newman of Ben-Gurion University discusses the significance of these latest developments.

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Story Transcript

VOICE OF ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: Israel and Syria are holding indirect peace talks in Istanbul through Turkish mediators. This marks the first official confirmation that contacts have resumed since 2000. In statements issued minutes apart in Jerusalem and Damascus, the two governments said they had declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind, with the goal of reaching a comprehensive peace. Peace with Syria would require Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured in the 1967 war and has occupied ever since.

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EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It is always better to talk rather than shoot. I am happy that both sides decided to talk.

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Reaction in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, was mixed. Kadima member Yoel Hasson approved of the reopening of talks with Syria, but said any agreement reached between the two sides should go to a referendum in Israel.

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YOEL HASSON, KADIMA MEMBER OF KNESSET: For me it’s important, and it’s important for the country. And I think the question of the Golan Heights, it should go, if it’s going to be a final negotiation with agreement, this agreement should go to a referendum in Israel.

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A Golan withdrawal would be extremely controversial among Israelis, and it could be difficult for Ehud Olmert, whose low popularity has been battered by a recent corruption investigation to win public support for such a move.

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YUVAL STEINITZ, LIKUD MEMBER: He’s ready to trade the Golan Heights, you know, our most vital interest, in an attempt to save himself from criminal investigation and indictment.

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The main point of contention concerns a narrow strip of land along the Sea of Galilee, which Israel wants to keep to ensure its control of vital water supplies. On the ground, this gap is just several hundred meters. The sticking point is Syria’s demand for land reaching the northeastern shore of the inland sea. The Real News spoke to Professor David Newman of Ben-Gurion University.

PROF. DAVID NEWMAN, POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY, BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY: The key issue between Israel and Syria is first and foremost the strategic importance, from an Israeli perspective, of the Golan Heights. It’s not like the West Bank or Judea and Samaria, where the whole issue of strategy is tied up also with history and religion, and this land belongs to me, etcetera. In the case of the Golan Heights, it is first and foremost the issue of strategy: can Israel be secure without the Golan Heights, given, of course, the very important topography, with the Golan Heights sitting above, you know, the Galilee or the Israeli settlements down south, and given the fact that prior to ’67 there were many cases where Syrian troops fired on the Israeli kibbutzim from up on the heights? Second most important issue is the water issue, because much of Israel’s water sources in a region of scarce water, and it’s coming in from the Golan, and there’s no question that Israel would want to negotiate a very serious water-sharing agreement or some sort of water agreement with Syria if the Golan Heights were to be returned as part of an agreement. But the first and foremost issue is the strategic one. Syria is not one of the Islamic fundamentalist countries, and it’s probably one of the more secular of the Arab countries in the region, and it’s always maintained that stamp. So while, you know, in its fight against Israel it may find it convenient to tie up with Iran, in many other respects it’s probably very wary of getting too close. Having said that, any Israeli leader, if he were to come to the Israeli people and say, "Look, this is what we’ve negotiated. These are the terms of the agreement. You know, this is what we can achieve," the Israeli people on the whole will go forward, and they will be prepared to support an agreement which they believe will bring greater security or stability for the region, but Olmert would have to prove to them that that’s what he’s bringing.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.