Syrian President Bashar Assad senses that he is in a strong position and has no intention of relinquishing his preconditions in the indirect peace talks with Israel, Syrian officials told Haaretz.
"The indirect negotiations will continue as long as there is no American partner. Assad will also not make, at this stage, any gesture of goodwill to the Israeli prime minister, not even a handshake, because there is no reason to grant such a gesture to a weak prime minister," a Syrian official said.
"[Syria's] concern is that such a gesture will be used by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert for political leverage for domestic needs, and not to achieve progress in the peace process with Syria."
Israel and Turkey are currently seeking a formula that will allow the United States to participate in the negotiations with Syria so Damascus will agree to move from indirect to direct talks.
Olmert met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for about 30 minutes Sunday; the two discussed the talks with Syria in which Ankara is serving as mediator. The meeting also included Olmert's senior aides, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, as well as the Turkish officials involved in the mediation, senior foreign policy advisers Ahmet Davutoglu and Feridun Sinirlioglu.
Olmert asked Erdogan to pass on a message to Assad: "I am serious in my intentions to progress in negotiations."
Olmert added that it is possible to convince the United States to participate in the talks, sources said.
Immediately after his talk with Olmert, Erdogan went to a meeting with Assad, which lasted around 45 minutes. According to sources in Erdogan's entourage, Turkey is trying to convince President George W. Bush "not to lose momentum in the talks and allow progress by including a U.S. representative in the talks."
The same source added that Turkey hopes a U.S. representative will participate in the upcoming round of negotiations, which is expected to take place in Istanbul by late July.
For his part, Assad did not reject the possibility for direct negotiations, which he deems necessary for progress. He said it could take from six months to two years to reach a peace deal with Israel if the two sides agreed to face-to-face talks.
"Signing a peace accord with Israel ... it's a question that requires six months to two years maximum if both parties are serious in engaging in direct talks," Assad said Sunday on France 2 television.
Assad said that anyone who wanted peace in the Middle East needed to talk to Syria, but repeated that he did not believe any accord could be reached this year while Bush remained in office.
At a press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert declared that "Israel is continuing with efforts to achieve peace with Syria, and I hope that soon the talks will become direct so that we can progress in them more.
"In any case, it [progress on the Syrian track] will not come at the expense of negotiations with the Palestinians."
On French television, Assad mentioned the issue of shaking Olmert's hand and said that he had not done this.
"No. We are engaged in indirect talks. We are not looking for symbols. We are trying to create a new reality; peace instead of war," he said.
"Once peace is signed then symbols take on a great importance."
According to the Syrian line of thinking, France's role as the sponsor of the talks with Israel is a stopgap measure, but Paris cannot replace the Americans in this role.
Regarding the chances that negotiations between Israel and Lebanon may begin, a Syrian source said that "the traditional Syrian view is that the Lebanese track is tied to the Syrian track, and this has not changed. However, under the current circumstances, as long as Syria does not achieve its goals in the peace process with Israel there is no room for parallel tracks."
On the other hand, Lebanese sources said that talk of a separate Lebanese negotiating track was simply unrealistic at this stage.
"The reason for this is not the Syrian opposition but the political structure in Lebanon and the power of Hezbollah, which will not allow any Lebanese government, with Syrian support or without, to progress in a peace process with Israel."
Syria also aspires to have a direct role in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Damascus made clear to Abbas during his visit to the Syrian capital 10 days ago that it supports a national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and that it will do its utmost to convince the radical Islamic organization to soften its stance.
Assad and Abbas met Sunday at the Union for the Mediterranean conference and discussed ways of furthering Palestinian reconciliation.
According to Egyptian sources, Egypt also intends to mend its ties with Syria and contribute to a reconciliation between Damascus and Saudi Arabia.
If this happens, Syria is expected to take a much more active and overt role in the bridging of differences between Fatah and Hamas. It would also get involved in the indirect talks between Hamas and Israel.
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