Turkish FM: Mediation Efforts Aimed at Direct Syria-Israel Talks

Jerusalem: Turkey seeking ways to kick-start talks; Turkish PM to send high-ranking emissary to Israel.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said Monday that while much remains to be achieved before any peace agreement between Israel and Syria, Ankara would continue to act as a go-between to encourage the two sides to restart direct negotiations.

Babacan told reporters that an agreement between the longtime enemies requires strong political determination from both sides.

"We are still at the very beginning of the process," Babacan said during a news conference with New Zealand's foreign minister. His comments were in response to a question on Turkey's mediation efforts.

Turkey, which has close ties to both Israel and Syria, has disclosed that it is trying to restart low-level talks between the two countries as a prelude to bringing the leaders of Syria and Israel together.

The last round of direct peace talks between the two countries broke down in 2000 over the details of Israel's proposed withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

"Talks will continue to take place through Turkey for a while," the foreign minister said. "When the issue is a little more mature, then I hope that the sides will meet each other," he said, adding: "It is a very promising development... There has been diplomatic traffic for the past year, which has intensified in the past few months."

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

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.