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(photo credit: AP)
Turkey will host a fourth round of indirect talks between Israel and Syria later this month, with the aim of bringing the bitter enemies to talk to each other directly, an official said Friday.
Turkish mediators have been shuttling between the Syrian and Israeli delegations in Istanbul throughout three rounds of talks that began in May. No result has been made public.
Previously, Turkey had been holding contacts with the two countries, laying the groundwork for the indirect talks.
Syria demands that Israel return the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau Israel captured in the Six-Day War. In the past, Israel has agreed in principle, but the two sides could not agree on a final border or terms of peaceful relations.
A Turkish government official said a fourth round of talks was scheduled for the end of July. That round would aim to get direct talks started, he said, but warned that it may still be early for a breakthrough. The official, who is in contact with the Turkish mediators, spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings are not public.
Any agreement for direct negotiations between Syria and Israel would be a major victory for Turkey and help it proclaim a role as a major diplomatic player. Turkey, a majority Muslim country that is vying for European Union membership, enjoys close ties with both Syria and Israel.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said this week that Turkey aimed to bring "the sides together around a table for direct talks," but warned that "progress will take time."
"We are still at the beginning of the process," he said.
Babacan said "there is hope for peace as long as there is political will and determination on both sides."
"If these talks end positively, then, this will definitely influence the climate in the Middle East and even in a larger geography," said.
An Israeli official, who asked not to be identified because of the secrecy surrounding the talks, said the Israeli delegation had been ready to hold direct talks from the onset, but Syria had insisted that Turkish mediators meet with the sides separately.
The official would not provide details but said during previous indirect talks, the sides had been working to identify issues and the composition of committees to discuss them.
Previous peace talks between Syria and Israel broke down in 2000.
Israeli skeptics charge that the talks are designed to bolster the troubled regimes of the two countries rather than actually making peace.
Syria is trying to break out of the isolation that has resulted from its hosting extremist groups while allied with Iran. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is facing the possibility of an indictment on corruption charges, and many in Israel are clamoring for him to step down and call an election.