U.S. Confirms Intense Efforts to Restart Israel-Syria Peace Efforts

U.S. envoy Mitchell, arriving in Damascus Thurs., says Israeli-Palestinian talks could support simultaneous Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Special U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell confirmed at a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday that the United States is making intense efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell

Mitchell said U.S. President Barack Obama has been briefed on the results of these efforts.

Mitchell said Washington did not consider the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations a barrier to Israeli-Syria talks. On the contrary, he said, the two tracks could help each other.

He also said his deputy, Fred Hof, had recently been to Damascus and met with senior government officials about resuming the Israeli-Syria talks. On Hof's return to Washington, he reported on the outcome of his meetings to Mitchell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama.

Mitchell said efforts to restart the Israeli-Syrian track would continue Thursday when he arrives in Damascus for talks with President Bashar Assad.

Channel 10 television reported on Tuesday that Hof visited Israel this week and told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Assad wanted to resume talks with Israel without preconditions, but was seeking American assurances that Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights.

Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that Netanyahu sent a message to Assad via the U.S. in which he said he believed Israel and Syria could reach an agreement within a year.

Turkey to do 'everything possible' for peace

Meanwhile, Ankara will do everything in its power to achieve peace between Israel and Syria, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Wednesday.

Speaking at a conference in Istanbul, he also claimed that Turkey and the United States see eye to eye on the Iranian nuclear question. "Turkey will do everything possible for peace between Israel and Syria," Davutoglu vowed.

Two days previously, Syrian President Bashar Assad had termed Turkey an essential partner in the diplomatic process between his country and Israel. In earlier statements, the Syrian leader had similarly said Damascus would not give up Turkish involvement in the process with Israel.

The Turkish foreign minister had been scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May to discuss continuing the indirect talks between Israel and Syria. But the Israel Navy's interception of a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to the Gaza Strip, in which nine Turkish citizens were killed, scuttled Davutoglu's plans.

Davutoglu's latest statements follow a meeting this week between Assad and France's Middle East envoy, Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former French ambassador to Damascus. Cousseran is under orders from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to convince Syria to accept France as the lead mediator in Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Turkey considers its role as mediator between Syria and Israel as a way of advancing its goal of becoming a key player in the Middle East peace process, and is thus concerned over the possibility of losing its standing to France. Turkish sources said Ankara will try to reestablish contacts between Israeli and Syrian officials in the coming months.

"A diplomatic process in which Turkey participates could significantly dissipate the impact of the flotilla affair on relations between the two countries," a source in Turkey's Foreign Ministry told Haaretz. "We do not see any contradiction between the talks that are being conducted between Israel and the Palestinians and the resumption of the Syrian-Israeli channel."

Turkish mediation could also help Ankara reach agreement with the U.S. on an arms package it wants to procure, as well as improving its image after it refused to support further UN sanctions against Iran. But Turkey is still refusing to comply with an American request to deploy anti-ballistic missiles on its soil as part of a regional defense system against an Iranian missile strike.

Ankara has also rejected Israel's request that the captain of the Mavi Marmara - the flotilla ship on which all the deaths occurred - provide testimony to the Turkel Committee, which is investigating the May raid. Turkey maintains that Captain Mahmut Tural's testimony is already in the report that a Turkish committee investigating the incident prepared for a UN probe of the affair.