Government officials downplayed Monday recent French efforts to try and revive an Israeli-Syrian track, saying the focus now is on the direct talks with the Palestinians.

The official’s comments came as the recently designated French Middle East envoy, Jean-Claude Cousseran, met in Damascus Monday with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Cousseran reportedly met last week in Jerusalem with National Security Adviser Uzi Arad.

US Mideast envoy George Mitchell is also expected to visit Damascus on Thursday, as part of his trip to the region with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

According to Israeli officials, the thrust of the messages being passed by US officials to Damascus is that Syria should not do anything to try and torpedo the direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Mitchell’s aide Fred Hoff has reportedly been conveying messages to Jerusalem and Damascus.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Cousseran last month in what was widely perceived in Jerusalem as a search for relevance in the region at a time when the direct Israeli-Palestinian talks were being led by the Americans, with little or no European role.

Assad, according to the Syrian News Agency SANA, assured Cousseran that Damascus was committed to peace, and stressed the importance of Turkish mediation in Israeli-Syrian talks so the two sides can continue where they left off during the last round of indirect negotiations.

Turkish-mediated talks between the two countries broke off in 2008 after the start of Operation Cast Lead.

Since that time Turkey has grown increasingly close to Syria and become increasingly distanced from Israel.

Assad told the French envoy that he appreciated Sarkozy’s efforts to restart the Israeli-Syrian channel. He added that he hoped the process could progress despite what he characterized as Israeli policies not helpful in reaching an agreement.

Cousseran stressed the importance Syria has in the success of any regional peace settlement and added that France would like to contribute to the attainment of such an agreement.

Cousseran has wide experience in the region, having served as consular-general to Jerusalem in the 1980s, ambassador to Damascus and Ankara in the 1990s, and most recently as Paris’s envoy to Cairo in the early 2000s.

He also headed France’s foreign intelligence service and was instrumental in the rapprochement between Paris and Damascus following Sarkozy’s election in 2007.


French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner expressed his unhappiness two weeks ago at the lack of a EU representative at the relaunch of the Israeli-Palestinian talks in Washington. He also wanted to come to the region on Thursday night for meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah, along with the foreign ministers of Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain.

According to Israeli officials, the group wanted to hold high level meetings on Friday morning in Jerusalem, something logistically difficult because it would be just a few hours before Yom Kippur.

Alternate dates for the meeting, according to Israeli officials, were rejected by the Europeans, and as a result the visit will not take place at this time.

The officials said the Europeans seemed adamant about coming this week because of the talks in Sharm e-Sheikh on Tuesday, and Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.

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