Syrian President Bashar Assad told the French daily Le Figaro Monday that he will not begin direct talks with Israel while U.S. President George W. Bush is in office. Assad said that American involvement was crucial to the talks' success, and "frankly, we do not think that the current American administration is capable of making peace."
Also on Monday, an Israeli government source said Turkey is pressing Syria to move swiftly into direct talks with Israel.
The Israeli source said that Turkish officials have told their Syrian counterparts in recent days that the indirect talks mediated by Ankara have exhausted their usefulness, and it is now necessary to move to the next stage.
The Turks are pressing Damascus fairly hard on this issue, Israel has been told. The Turks argue that the indirect talks have already fulfilled their function, which was to get the process started, replace the mutual suspicion with a degree of mutual trust, and determine whether there is a basis for moving forward. The answer to the latter question, in Ankara's view, is yes, and therefore it sees no point in continuing the indirect talks, which can take the process only so far.
The Israeli official added that Turkey and Israel had both wanted direct talks from the outset, but because Syria refused, they agreed to begin with indirect talks.
According to the Israeli official, Turkey has another motive for desiring to push the talks up a level: It is afraid that France may seek to "steal" its mediator's role, due to the recent rapprochement between Paris and Damascus.
"They have developed a real rivalry with France, and they want to advance the negotiations in order to bolster their status," he said.
Next Monday, Assad and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will both attend a summit in Paris to launch a proposed new Mediterranean Union. The two are not expected to hold talks or shake hands, but will apparently be seated opposite each other at the same table, as a quirky result of the French decision to make the seating strictly alphabetical.
Thus far, there have been three sessions of indirect talks, which involve Turkish mediators shuttling between Israeli and Syrian negotiators located in the same city, but not the same hotel.
These meetings have focused mainly on technical issues, such as what the agenda for direct talks should be.
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