Week Before Gaza Op, Israel and Syria Were Ready for Direct Talks

Turkish official: Olmert, Assad held indirect phone call through Erdogan, were near joint statement.

Israel and Syria were about to announce that they would speak directly a week before the fighting in Gaza broke out, a Turkish official said. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had spoken with Syrian President Bashar Assad during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Ankara, and had mediated in crafting a joint statement.

But a few days later, while still awaiting Olmert's approval for the statement, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and Erdogan felt betrayed.

"Nobody imagined that Olmert would go behind Erdogan's back like that and not even hint that he intended to start fighting in Gaza," the Turkish official said.

Erdogan had invited Olmert to his official residence after he met Turkey's president. He suggested calling Assad and drafting a joint announcement about a direct discussion between the Israeli and Syrian delegations.

The source said Erdogan called Assad, told him that Olmert was at his residence and asked whether he would accept Erdogan's mediation. Assad agreed and the two began drafting the statement.

Every few minutes Erdogan's assistant brought Olmert, who was in another room, notes from Erdogan's talk with Assad and asked for his comments. Erdogan passed Olmert's comments on to Assad and took down his responses, which he then passed on to Olmert.

The source said the three-way conversation continued for more than four hours, until about 1 A.M. Olmert told Erdogan he must return to Israel. Erdogan said he would continue talking to Assad and call Olmert the next day for his comments.

"The joint Syrian-Israeli statement was nearly finished and needed only a few corrected words to be completed," the Turkish source said.

"After making the statement, the parties were to announce that they were ready to start direct negotiations and Erdogan was convinced that he had an agreed-on draft," the source said.

The statement had been expected to include an agreement to adhere to the understanding reached with Yitzhak Rabin.

This stipulated that Israel would be prepared to withdraw from the entire Golan in exchange for permanent peace and security arrangements, as well as agreement on what the term normalization would mean for future peaceful relations.

But a week later, Israel launched the offensive in Gaza. When Erdogan heard of the attack he said that Olmert had stabbed him in the back and that Israel must pay for it, one of his aides said.