All parties confirm this morning that Israel and Syria have opened indirect talks about a peace settlement, with Turkey as the middleman. The move seems surprising, coming so soon after Israel’s attack on a Syrian facility widely believed to be a clandestine nuclear facility, but the timing may suit both governments:

Israel and Syria on Wednesday said they were holding indirect peace talks through Turkish mediators — the first official confirmation of contacts between the longtime enemies.

In statements issued minutes apart, the two governments said they “have declared their intent to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind,” with a goal of reaching “a comprehensive peace.”

Both nations thanked Turkey for its help, and Turkey issued its own confirmation. Muslim Turkey has good ties with both Israel and Syria.

There have been reports in recent months of new Israeli-Syrian contacts through Turkey, and Turkey’s foreign minister said earlier this month that his country was trying to bring the sides together. But this was the first official confirmation that contacts have resumed.

The road to an agreement has plenty of obstacles, and the Golan Heights issue is only one of them. Israel took Golan in 1967 when it beat the Syrians in the war, taking back high ground Damascus used to routinely shell Israel. Syria still claims it as their land, and the international community largely recognizes it as Syrian. Any settlement with Syria would almost certainly involve an Israeli withdrawal from the strategic position, and would almost as surely receive a large amount of protest from Israelis.

Carl in Jerusalem reports that the pushback against Olmert has already begun on the Golan, and he joins in it as well:

Having reported the news, I would like to comment on it. Olmert’s despicable cynicism and egomania know no bounds. I have no words that I can use to express how much I detest him that do not run the risk of attracting a defamation lawsuit (yes, even politicians sue for defamation here). It’s long past time for Shas (at least) to get their heads out of the sand and their butts out of the government. For that matter, it’s time for Livni and Barak to get out too.

Carl notes that the Golan has strategic value not just for Israel’s defense but also for water rights. He promises to expand on that in later posts.

Golan will not be the only issue. Just as Syria will not sign a peace settlement without resolving the Golan in its favor, the Israelis will not sign an agreement without demanding an end to Syrian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas. That is the biggest reason for Israel to normalize relations with Damascus. Israel has already publicly demanded this as a precondition of direct negotiations, even before an agreement is reached.

The regional ramifications are interesting, to say the least. What do Syria’s partners in terrorism, the Iranian mullahs, think of this effort? They have been crystal clear in their desire to see Israel disintegrate, and have funded both Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Islamic Jihad to speed the process. If Syria signs an agreement with Israel, it not only isolates Tehran but it cuts them off from their terrorist proxies. It stops Iranian hegemony cold in the region and makes southwest Asia a very lonely place for the Persians, hemmed in on all sides by allies of the US.

That would make it a rather foolish time for an American president to have a summit with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wouldn’t it?

Of course, that only happens if Syria and Israel actually reach an agreement. Carl believes that the exercise intends to distract Israelis from Ehud Olmert’s legal woes, while the AP report suggests that the Israelis wanted to poke the Palestinians to faster action on peace negotiations for the West Bank. The official acknowledgment of the talks raises the stakes if Olmert and Assad have done this only as a gamble on other issues. At some point, people will expect the nations to deliver on these promises.