'Israel-Syria talks to focus on borders'

Arab press: 5th round of indirect talks next week; France wants to be involved in future direct talks.

Bashar Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
A fifth round of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria are scheduled to begin on September 7 in Istanbul, according to reports in the London-based Arabic dailies on Wednesday. According to French sources quoted by Asharq Alawsat, previous talks have been fruitful and the fifth round will focus on demarcating a future border following Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. According to a French source quoted by Al Hayat, sketching the border would be "the main topic" of the discussions. The sources claimed that Israel and the US had reached an agreement according to which France would take part in the mediation between the two parties as soon as the talks become direct. The Jerusalem Post could not confirm the reports in the Arab press. The reports of France's possible involvement in future talks came as French President Nicholas Sarkozy was scheduled to land in Damascus, marking the first visit by a Western head of state in several years. Sarkozy will be joined in Damascus on Thursday by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the sponsor of the Israel-Syria talks thus far, and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa. The three of them are scheduled to hold a summit with Syrian President Bashar Assad. On Tuesday, Assad declared that indirect negotiations with Israel had brought "the possibility of peace," although the two countries still had quite a way to go to reach that goal. In an interview with France-3 television, the Syrian leader said officials from both sides, as well as from Turkey, were working to make direct negotiations happen. "Today there is a possibility of peace," Assad said. "But nonetheless, we cannot say that we are close to achieving peace. We are preparing for direct negotiations. When we reach that step, we will be able to say that we are approaching peace." "Today, we can only say that we have opened the door to peace," he said, in remarks in Arabic that were dubbed over in French. On Monday, Turkish sources said that there was no new date scheduled for the fifth round of talks, which was originally scheduled for last week. There has been speculation that the delay in the talks was due to a bureaucratic problem. Olmert's chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, headed the Israeli delegation but quit his post in the beginning of August, just after Olmert announced his intention to resign following the Kadima primaries. At the time, Olmert asked Turbowicz to stay on and deal with the diplomatic issues he had been heavily involved in, primarily as a liaison with Washington and heading the talks with Syria. The legal aspects of Turbowicz working as a volunteer, or setting up a new framework for him in the Prime Minister's Office, have not been resolved and are being dealt with by the attorney-general, giving rise to speculation that the talks will be delayed until the issue is sorted out. Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report