(photo credit: AP [file])
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Sunday following a brief visit to Damascus. High on his agenda in Jerusalem will be Israel's air strike on Syria last month and the American Jewish community's stand on whether the World War I killing of Armenians constituted genocide.
Babacan arrived in Damascus on Saturday, and was scheduled to hold talks during his visit there with President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Farouk Shara.
His visit to Damascus came as ABC News quoted American officials over the weekend as saying that the IAF raid on Syria was planned for several months and was postponed a number of times due to heavy US pressure.
According to the report, Israel presented US officials with satellite imagery which clearly showed North Korean nuclear technology in a Syrian facility.
According to a US source, Washington officials were astonished by the imagery and by the fact US intelligence had not picked up on the facility previously.
"Israel tends to be very thorough about its intelligence coverage, particularly when it takes a major military step, so they would not have acted without data from several sources," said ABC News military consultant Tony Cordesman.
A different source told ABC News that Israel had planned the strike as early as July 14, and in confidential meetings with high-ranking US officials, debated the appropriate response.
Several officials supported Israel's decision to strike, although others, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, firmly opposed it and offered to publicly condemn Syria for operating a nuclear facility instead.
US officials who initially opposed the raid, according to ABC , apparently feared the negative influence it might have over the whole region.
Consequently, officials in Washington persuaded Israel to push back the raid, but in September, Israel feared that information about the facility might be leaked to the press, and went ahead with the strike, despite objections by Washington.
After the strike, fuel tanks were found on the Turkish side of its border with Syria, something that led to protests to Israel from the Turkish foreign ministry. Babacan, who at the time said "this situation is unacceptable for Turkey," also said that Israel promised a quick investigation of a possible violation of Turkish airspace.
Babacan was greeted at Damascus Airport Saturday by assistant foreign minister, Abdul-Fattah Ammora. In addition to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he is also expected to visit Jordan during this Middle East swing.
This is Babacan's first visit to the region since being appointed foreign minister in August, replacing Abdullah Gul, who was elected Turkey's president.
He visited Israel for the first time in 2004 as Turkey's minister of state for economic affairs.
Turkish media reports have said Babacan is expected to play a mediating role between Syria and Israel. If so, he has his work cut out for him, as A-Baath, the official newspaper of President Bashar Assad's government, warned Saturday that Syria would not hesitate to start a war with Israel to restore its control over the Golan Heights.
In an article to mark 34 years since the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, A-Baath said: "Our people and our leadership are determined to liberate our conquered lands using all means, methods and ways."
Babacan was expected to discuss the US-sponsored Mideast peace conference planned for later this year both with his Syrian, Israeli and PA hosts. Syria has said it will not attend the conference if the Golan issue were not addressed.
Babacan did not make any comments upon his arrival in Damascus, but before departing Turkey he said: "The region is going through a sensitive time and we are facing problems, primarily the Palestinian issue and developments in Iraq that could affect the entire region."
"Turkey will continue its efforts and contributions for the establishment of peace and stability in the region," he said.
Alongside Syria, Babacan is expected to talk with his Israeli interlocutors about legislation that will come before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that would declare the World War I era killings of Armenians a genocide. While this measure comes before Congress every year, this time it seems to have enough votes to pass both the committee and the full House.
In August, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reversed its long-standing position on the issue, and said that the events of that period were tantamount to genocide. At the same time, the organization said it opposed legislation on the matter.
Jewish organizations in Washington - because of the close Turkish-Israeli ties - have traditionally lobbied against this piece of legislation, and in August Turkey's ambassador to Israel Namik Tan told The Jerusalem Post that Turkey expected Israel to "deliver" American Jewish organizations and ensure that the US Congress did not pass the resolution.
Tan said he understood that Israel's position on the matter had not changed - which is that Turkey and Armenia should resolve their differences over this matter through dialogue - but "Israel should not let the [US] Jewish community change its position. This is our expectation and this is highly important, highly important."
Turkish and American officials have been pressing lawmakers to reject the measure, and on Friday US President George W. Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked by telephone about their opposition to the legislation.
The dispute involves the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire.
Armenian advocates, backed by many historians, contend the Armenians died in an organized genocide. The Turks say the Armenians were victims of widespread chaos and governmental breakdown as the 600-year-old empire collapsed in the years before Turkey was born in 1923.
Though the largely symbolic measure would have no binding effect on US foreign policy, its passage could nonetheless damage an already strained relationship with Turkey.
After France voted last year to make denial of Armenian genocide a crime, the Turkish government ended military ties.
Many in the US fear that a public backlash in Turkey could lead to restrictions on crucial supply routes through Turkey to Iraq and Afghanistan and the closure of Incirlik, a strategic air base in Turkey used by the United States. In Israel, too, there is concern that passage of the bill could harm Israeli-Turkish ties.
During his two-day stay in Israel, Babacan will meet President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. He will also go to Ramallah for talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayad.
AP contributed to this report
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