Turkish Mediator on His Way: Focus on Bridging Syrian Preconditions to Talks

Turkey is trying to find a compromise that would allow peace talks between Israel and Syria to begin, a source in Jerusalem said yesterday.

Recent proposals to begin negotiations between Syria and Israel stalled after Syrian President Bashar Assad demanded an assurance from Israel that it will withdraw from the Golan Heights as a prerequisite for peace talks to begin.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan plans to send an emissary to Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on his recent talks with Assad in Damascus. Erdogan will apparently send his foreign policy advisor, who is also in charge of talks with Syria and has in the past met with Olmert adviser Yoram Turbowicz in Ankara.

Olmert decided to pursue talks with Syria, with Turkish mediation, after he realized that the United States would not object. If the mediation is successful, the talks between Syria and Israel could begin while President George Bush is still in the White House.

"The U.S. has never vetoed talks between Israel and Syria, which is why there is nothing to stop talks from going ahead during this U.S. administration - if the conditions are ripe," the government source said.

The source added that Israel has not yet received an update on Erdogan's talks in Damascus. "Talks are being conducted to chart out the issue," the source said. "The goal of Turkey's activity is to allow talks to start. That's how we view it. So far, no real negotiations are taking place."

Substantial disagreements exist between the two sides' opening stance, the source said. Olmert has called for direct and discreet talks to begin immediately, without arbiters or preconditions. Assad, however, has called for open talks, arbitrated by the U.S. In addition, he wants Israel to announce it would be willing to hand over the Golan Heights territory that it seized from Syria in the Six-Day War, in accordance with an alleged similar commitment agreed to by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

The Turks are taking both sides' stances into consideration and trying to come up with a formula that would bring them to the negotiating table," the government source said. "The key issue now is to find a solution that would satisfy Syria's demand that Israel commit to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which at the moment is impeding progress." The source said Israel is considering an alternative, in the form of a public announcement indicating that Israel is be "well aware of the price it would have to pay at the end of talks."

Israeli officials believe Turkey's involvement in the issue will increase. "Erdogan has decided to go all the way on the issue of Israel and Syrian," the Israeli governmental source said.