Israel Wants Turkey Back on Board as Mediator With Syria

Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, is expected to propose to Turkey that it resume its mediation role in peace talks between Israel and Syria, in exchange for a return to more cordial relations between Israel and Turkey, according to sources in Jerusalem.

The sources said that the policy was coordinated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministry in advance of Ben-Eliezer's departure on an official visit to Turkey Sunday evening.

he sources say that Ben-Eliezer will stress that Israel will view Turkey as a mediator with Syria, but Turkey must first demonstrate a return to the normal relations that existed with Israel before a deterioration in ties at the beginning of the year in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The normalization will have to be shown through declarations and deeds, they say. Among such gestures, Ben-Eliezer will propose that Turkish President Abdullah Gul pay a visit to Israel and meet with President Shimon Peres.

In the course of Ben-Eliezer's visit, he will attempt to return economic, military, strategic and diplomatic ties to normal. The official reason for the minister's visit is the annual Turkish-Israeli economic conference. In the course of his trip, Ben-Eliezer will meet with the Turkish agriculture minister as well as the defense minister, who heads the Turkish delegation to the conference. Efforts have recently been underway to arrange a meeting with a high-level Turkish political figure. In the absence of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is abroad, a possible meeting with President Gul or with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is being explored.

"I hope my economic and political talks will make it possible to get the important relations between Israel and its Turkish strategic partner back on track," Ben-Eliezer said, adding, "Turkey has special ties with Israel, and as a regional and democratic-Muslim power."

In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, Turkey found it difficult to restrain its criticism of Israel in the face of pro-Palestinian public opinion in Turkey. This was followed by public pressure, backed by Erdogan, to halt cooperation between Israeli and Turkish companies. Israeli tourists responded by boycotting Turkey.

In October Prime Minister Netanyahu rejected a Turkish proposal, conveyed through Spain, to resume mediation efforts with Syria. About a week later, Syria canceled Israeli participation in air force exercises in Turkey. The anti-Israel Turkish policies have been led by Prime Minister Erdogan, while President Gul is considered a pro-Israeli figure in the Turkish leadership.

In reaction to recent declarations by Netanyahu regarding his readiness to negotiate with Syria without preconditions, Syrian President Bashar Assad's senior political advisor, Buthayna Shaaban, said over the weekend that Syria's position on opening negotiations with Israel is clear: Israel must first recognize Syria's rights in the Golan Heights and present guarantees that it will withdraw. From Syria's standpoint, she said, it is not a matter of preconditions but of rights that it cannot relinquish.

At a lecture in Syria, Shaaban said the meeting between Assad and French President Nicolas Sarkozy about 10 days ago dealt with the peace process, the Iranian nuclear issue and Turkish relations with Syria. She said Syria is insisting that Turkey serve as mediator in any negotiations with Israel, and Turkey is an important country that had a central and rational role in the indirect negotiations with Israel. Negotiations under Turkish mediation, she said, proved to the world that Syria wants an agreement and Israel is hindering it.