Israel and Syria, via Turkish mediation, have already outlined an agenda for direct talks, if and when they occur. And a Turkish official involved in the negotiations told Haaretz that the time has now come for such talks.
"We expect the next discussions to be direct ones between Israeli and Syrian military officials regarding security arrangements and a buffer zone," the Turkish official said. "They can no longer be procedural discussions in which we serve as a 'mobile phone.' Now, direct talks are needed. It would be ridiculous for us to start shuttling maps from room to room. Talks might also begin, simultaneously or subsequently, on the meaning of normalization."
Asked when, and at what level, the next meeting will take place, he responded: "After the Mediterranean meeting we'll know more."
Will next week's summit of Mediterranean leaders in France give the signal for direct talks by providing an opportunity for a public handshake between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad? In an interview with Le Figaro this week, Assad was evasive. He said that American involvement is necessary for direct talks, and this is inconceivable as long as George W. Bush remains president. But at the same time, he said that if French President Nicolas Sarkozy demonstrates enthusiasm for Israeli-Syrian negotiations, Assad will be happy to involve him.
The main fear now is that after Israeli and Syrian representatives have agreed on an agenda in Turkey, the long waiting period until a new American administration is sworn in may halt the momentum that has been created. Syria, which is interested in moving forward with the talks as long as Israel has a premier who is also interested in talking, might view active involvement by Sarkozy as a suitable interim solution. If that is indeed what Assad decides, it is reasonable to assume that he will not refrain from meeting Olmert at the summit, and will thereby set the next steps in motion.
Syria has recently seen its diplomatic status in the region rise due to its involvement in the Doha summit, which produced the breakthrough that is soon expected to result in a new Lebanese government. It is now seeking to use its influence to effect a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. In short, Damascus aspires to paint itself as at least as important as Egypt and Saudi Arabia in resolving regional problems. The Syrians recognize the weakness of Israel's current government, but their assessment is that by talking with Israel now, they could at least obtain an agreed outline of a peace treaty, even if its implementation would have to wait for another Israeli government. Such an agreement in principle would give the next American administration a reason to change its policy toward Syria and end sanctions against it.
For Paris to step into Washington's shoes as an Israeli-Syrian mediator, Assad must first pay his dues in Lebanon. France expects that after the new Lebanese government is established - possibly by the end of this week - Assad will announce the opening of a Syrian embassy in Lebanon, ending Syria's long-standing refusal to recognize Lebanon as an independent country. Such an announcement may well be made in Paris after a meeting there between Assad and the new Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman.
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