Erdoğan, Assad discuss revival of peace talks with Israel

Erdoğan, Assad discuss revival of peace talks with Israel

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) had talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Aleppo on Wednesday.

July 23, 2009, Thursday/ 17:02:00
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan disclosed on Wednesday that he has been asked to help mediate again in the Arab-Israeli conflict, speaking just before he left for talks with the Syrian president.

Erdoğan helped mediate last year in four rounds of indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. But Syria suspended them in December over Israel's military offensive in Gaza.

Before he left for talks with President Bashar Assad in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Erdoğan reiterated Turkey's readiness to help restart indirect talks between Syria and Israel. Turkey has also offered to mediate in other tracks of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

“We feel a responsibility. ... Requests to resume the process have started to come. We are working on the issue," Erdoğan told reporters before leaving for Aleppo, without elaborating who made the requests.

During the one-day visit to Aleppo, Erdoğan was accompanied by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who is known to be the architect of Ankara's Middle East policy as he devised Ankara's policy of re-engaging with its neighbors and improving regional stability. In addition to Davutoğlu, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and Hassan Ali Turkmani, a deputy of the Syrian vice president, also participated in the meeting between Erdoğan and Assad, which took longer than one hour, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Assad earlier this month said there is no “real partner” in Israel to make peace, stressing that a halt to Jewish settlements in the West Bank is essential to restart talks.

Syria has said it is willing to resume the Turkish-mediated talks if they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is not willing to cede the territory Syria wants. Recent news reports in Israeli media also suggested that Netanyahu did not want Erdoğan's mediation due to his stance against Israel displayed shortly after the Gaza offensive, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and has strained relations between Israel and Turkey. But in a statement later in the day, the Israeli Prime Ministry suggested the Israeli government was open to Turkish mediation, saying Turkey was a "legal channel" for talks with Syria.

In January an angry Erdoğan stormed out of a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on the Gaza conflict that included Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Sami Moubayed, a prominent expert on Syrian-Israeli relations, speaking with Today's Zaman, meanwhile, warned that the agenda of the Erdoğan-Assad talks would not be limited to the issue of Israel-Syria talks due to improved bilateral relations between Ankara and Damascus.

“I would not jump to conclusions on the ‘relaunch of the Israeli-Syrian indirect talks.' I don't think the Israelis are ready, or willing, and that is clear from what we hear daily from Israeli officials,” Moubayed, the editor-in-chief of the Syria-based Forward Magazine, told Today's Zaman.

“There are attempts at pumping life into these talks, but I think that after what happened in Gaza, and because the Israeli elections brought hardliners like Netanyahu to power, bilateral talks, be they direct or indirect, will not happen anytime soon,” Moubayed added.

Shlomo Brom, of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, speaking with Today's Zaman, said the Israeli government wants to resume negotiations without prior conditions, while Syria insists on an Israeli affirmation that it will withdraw from the Golan Heights. Israel knows very well that Syria will not agree to new negotiations that will start from the beginning, Brom said.

“To sum up, the probability of the resumption of Israeli-Syrian dialogue is quite low, and if it will be resumed, it will probably be a direct one and with US participation and there will not be a real need for Turkish mediation. As for Erdoğan's visit, he may use it to check whether Turkey has a role in the current Syria-Israel track from the point of view of Syria, but I am afraid the Syrians as well prefer US participation,” Brom said.

A state-run newspaper, meanwhile, reaffirmed in an editorial that Syria is keen to restore all the Golan Heights and would not agree to start negotiations from scratch.

“It's not in the interest of peace to waste time or efforts or to return to point zero under the pretext of preconditions,” said the government's Al-Thawra newspaper. “Moving toward negotiations means an endorsement of a full withdrawal from the occupied land,” it added.

Assad said in a newspaper interview in March that the Turkish-mediated talks failed because Israel would not make a clear commitment to return all of the Golan up to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He said Israel wanted to keep some disputed land around the Galilee, its main water source.

Israel demands that Syria end its support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbullah and the Palestinian Hamas.

Direct talks between Israel and Syria under US auspices also failed in 2000 over the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. Last month, President Barack Obama's special Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell, became the highest-level US administration official to visit Damascus since 2005. He acknowledged Syria's clout, declaring Damascus has a key role to play in forging Mideast peace.

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