Israel Confirms Third Parties Have Relayed Messages to Syria

Foreign Ministry said contact has gone on for some time, Damascus exploiting talks to improve ties with the West.

Israel on Wednesday confirmed statements made by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who said that a third party has been involved in relaying messages between the two countries.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that Israel and Syria have been in contact through third parties for some time, but the mediators have been unable to get the two sides to resume peace talks.

Regev said that Turkey, European countries and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have all relayed messages to Syria. He said Syria has not responded seriously to the overtures and accused Damascus of exploiting the talks to improve ties with the West.

"Different parties have been used to send messages. This is not new. It has been going on for quite some time," Regev said.

"The problem is not the lack of good people offering their good offices. The problem appears to be with the policy goals of the regime in Damascus. While it is possible that they talk about peace, that's all it is - talk," Regev continued.

"They are in fact playing the Israeli card cynically in attempts to solve their diplomatic problems with the countries of Europe and North America without any real intentions to change their relationship with Israel," he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a speech to parliament in Damascus that Israel and Syria are holding contacts through a third party. Assad did not disclose the identity of the interlocutor, but he was believed to be referring to Turkey.

Assad said a third country has recently been trying to bring Israel and Syria closer.

In a speech to parliament after taking the oath of office for his second term, Assad said he would be willing to send envoys to a third country to accelerate contacts between the parties. "That is the maximum that we are willing to do," he said.

In the past, Turkey has delivered messages between Israel and Syria, and it was Turkey that initiated the informal talks between former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel and the Syrian-American negotiator Ibrahim Suleiman.

Assad said the third-party contacts have been continuing for some time, but added that they became serious only recently.

He emphasized that he sees no possibility for direct meetings between Syrian and Israeli representatives at this stage. He suggested that mediators could shuttle between delegations from each country staying at different hotels in the same city.

The Syrian leader made it clear that once contacts through indirect channels were exhausted, open, non-secret negotiations should be initiated. He called for "direct, open negotiations in the presence of an honest broker." This can be read as a reiteration of Syria's long-standing call for U.S.-mediated talks.

Assad demanded guarantees from senior Israeli officials that Israel will return the entire Golan Heights to Syria before direct, bilateral negotiations, and in this context mentioned the "deposit" by the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Syria claims that Rabin promised the U.S. that Israel would withdraw to the June 1967 borders and asked what the Syrians would give in return. Assad also stressed, however, that he did not trust Israel and that all previous attempts to negotiate with Israel damaged the trust that did not exist in the first place.

Regarding Turkey, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chief of staff, attorney Yoram Turbowicz, went to Ankara about a month ago. His visit nearly coincided with the visit to Israel of a top Turkish official.

The Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday issued a statement saying that while any talk of peace is positive, the Syrian president issued three "no's" that are unacceptable to Israel: The demand for indirect and open talks, and the precondition of Israel's agreeing to cede the Golan Heights. Olmert demands confidential talks with no preconditions, the statement said.