Turkey: Goal Is Direct Meeting Next Month

Ankara is impressed by the present upbeat mood in the talks and hopes that by next month the time might even be ripe for a direct meeting between Israelis and Syrians, a senior Turkish official said.

The official, who is involved in the Turkish mediation, said this week's meetings dealt mainly with "selecting issues for debate and refreshing the issues in agreement."

The Turkish mediator in the talks is Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister on foreign policy. Davotoglu scurried from one office to another this week, passing messages between the Israeli and Syrian delegations.

Davotoglu has recently visited Damascus several times, meeting senior Syrian officials including Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara and Syrian Foreign Ministry legal advisor Riad Daoudi. Daoudi, who probably headed the Syrian delegation for the talks with Israel in Turkey, conducted the talks with Turkey on Israel in the past year. He also dealt with the international investigation into the murder in 2005 of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Syria is presenting the talks in Turkey as President Bashar Assad's achievement. Syrian commentators said on Arab television networks that the talks were being conducted according to Assad's terms: They were held in public, were based on the Madrid Conference that set the terms of Israeli withdrawal, adopted Israel's willingness expressed in 1995 to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace and were not conditioned, at least at this stage, on a Syrian disengagement from Iran, Hezbollah or the Palestinian organizations in Damascus.

The Turkish mediation efforts have been going on for over a year. Turkey is trying to prevent Syria's isolation and to curb Iran's influence in the Middle East and assumes that it would be easier to achieve peace between Israel and Syria than between Israel and the Palestinians. Turkey went ahead with the talks over U.S. objections.

"We understood the American displeasure but we are acting on Turkish interests rather than American ones," the Turkish official said.

Asked if Washington had pressured Ankara to block the move with Syria, he said Washington made its position clear "and we made ours clear. I'm sure Washington will be pleased with advancing the process, after all it is supposed to be the 'honest broker' that Assad is looking for."

A Turkish government source told Haaretz that Turkey could lead the mediation a certain way but cannot replace the United States. "It's like a relay race. We do our section and if it succeeds we pass the baton to the Americans," he said.

Another Turkish source said that the move is intended to serve Turkey, Syria and Israel rather than the process itself. "Erdogan is under threat to have his party outlawed over his remarks on women's headcoverings, Olmert is tied up in investigations and Assad needs to break out of his international isolation and the Hariri murder entanglement. A bit of commotion over the peace process will do none of them any harm," a government official said.