Israel Promises Syria: Talks to Proceed Despite Domestic Crises

The negotiations between Israel and Syria through Turkish mediation resumed yesterday in Ankara. Israel is represented in the talks by senior advisers to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, who left for Ankara on Saturday night and began talks yesterday.

The current round of talks is expected to last until this evening.

The two senior Olmert aides will deliver a message to the Syrians that Israel is interested in continuing the talks notwithstanding the complex domestic political situation at home.

The departure of the two senior officials to Ankara was not readily apparent since they had been scheduled to attend meetings in Paris in preparation for the visit to Israel of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. However, the absence of the two aides at the cabinet meeting yesterday revealed that their early departure had another purpose.

During a meeting yesterday with the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that "furthering talks with Syria is the right thing to do, but it does not mean that Israel has relinquished anything. The way ahead is still long."

Yesterday on Channel 2, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a close associate of Olmert, was quoted as expressing his opposition to the way talks with Syria are being conducted, arguing "this is a strategic mistake and a prize for extremist Islam."

This round of talks in Turkey is the first since it was announced on May 21 in both Jerusalem and Damascus that the two countries planned to renew negotiations, indirectly through the good services of Turkish mediators.

The meeting between Israeli and Syrian negotiators aims to prepare an agenda for a possible direct meeting next month.

A senior Turkish source familiar with the talks said that at this stage there is still no talk of a meeting at the highest levels - between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Bashar Assad.

"It is still early to talk about diplomatic agreements between the two sides since there are many technical issues remaining since the previous meeting for which Damascus and Jerusalem offered answers around which the current discussions will revolve," the Turkish source said.

In response to an inquiry as to whether the two sides have began discussing the framework of a peace agreement, the Turkish source said, This is too early a stage but it is clear that the talks are being held on the basis of an agreement in principle that Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for normalization of relations between Syria and Israel. The nature of that normalization, its extent and stages will be discussed at a later stage."

The same source added that the visit of President Assad to Paris next month may serve as "a significant launch pad for furthering the process; however Assad is expecting American mediation and this can only happen following the presidential elections in the United States."

Yesterday, aides of President Sarkozy held meetings with senior officials in the Syrian regime. The talks centered on Lebanon, but relations between Syria and Israel were also discussed.