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Syria is seeking international acceptance and is therefore unlikely to attack Israel, a Turkish diplomat told reporters here on Friday as he dismissed speculation that war is likely to break out between the two enemies this summer.
"I don't think war is likely now between Israel and Syria," said Sedat Onal, deputy director-general for the Middle East at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He added that "it would not be wise for Syria to provoke a war with Israel" given that Damascus is "receiving more and more international acceptance."
As evidence that Syria's contacts with the international community are growing, he pointed to the visit US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) made to Damascus earlier this month.
"Even Pelosi visited Syria, so everyone now talks about engagement with Syria," said Onal. "The perception in the international community is that if the Americans would give the green light then Israel is prepared to talk with the Syrians."
Israel has balked at doing so because the US does not support such a move, said Onal. He downplayed US President George W. Bush's opposition to Pelosi's visit.
The Bush administration has discouraged Israel from negotiating with Israel, saying Syria was allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq to join the Sunni insurgency there.
Prime Minister's Office spokeswoman Miri Eisen told The Jerusalem Post the US was not preventing negotiations with Syria, but rather it was Israel's position that it was not possible to talk peace with Syria in light of its support of terrorism.
Onal said, however, that Syria could be an important player in the Middle East and that the Turkish government supported the revival of peace talks between Israel and its neighbors, including Syria.
He was speaking to Israeli and Palestinian reporters at a conference organized by the Geneva Initiative and the Konrad-Adenauer Stistung.
Syria helped in the formation of the Palestinian Authority's national unity government during the negotiations in Mecca in February, Onal said. It is a key country in the region and should be engaged in a positive manner, he said, adding that Turkey and Syria were strengthening their social and economic ties and had a free trade agreement.
It was important to support all efforts for peace at this time, according to Onal. He said that while the Middle East had been characterized by instability and turbulence for the last century, there had never before been so many issues creating such deep turmoil.
One core issue was the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that was accompanied by a looming civil war in Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the nuclear crisis in Iran, political instability in Lebanon, the confrontation between moderates and extremists Muslims, and the deepening fault lines between Islam and the West, he said.
Despite this gloomy picture, Onal said he saw a number of good opportunities for conflict resolution that should not be wasted.
He said these included the Arab League's efforts to revive its 2002 plan to offer Israel normalized relations in exchange for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 border. It also calls for Israel to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel.
Onal said the proposal was a set of principles designed to spark negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and not a fully formed peace plan. Its main ideas complied with UN resolutions that had wide support, Onal said.
What is new and important was the offer of normalized relations, he said. He added that differences between the Arab world and Israel on the issue of Palestinian refugees, which had prevented talks on the basis of the plan, should not be an obstacle to dialogue.
"This is a good framework which has regional legitimacy behind it, it is an important opportunity that should not be missed," he said.
Another opportunity for change was the formation of the PA national unity government, said Onal. It offered Hamas a renewed chance to meet the demands of the international community to recognize Israel and to stop violence against it, he said.
In spite of Hamas's recent threats to renew attacks against Israel, "It seems that the national unity government is the best alternative available," he said.
He added that the Turkish government would judge the new PA government by its actions. As such, he called on it to refrain from attacking Israel and to release Cpl. Gilad Schalit, kidnapped by Hamas on the Gaza border in June.
At the same time, the new Palestinian leadership should be given the time and support needed to govern, Onal said. He called on Israel to release the millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues it has withheld and to reduce restrictions on Palestinian movement.
Israel and the international community should assist moderate forces within Palestinian society and government, and expand contacts with those elements, said Onal.
He took a similar stance on Iran, saying dialogue and diplomacy were the best way to prevent Teheran from developing nuclear weapons.
Onal, who was deputy head of the Turkish mission in Teheran from 2002 to 2005, said he did not believe attempts to isolate Iran would succeed. Still, he added, the Turkish government, which has trade ties with Iran, would continue to support UN decisions to impose economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Turning to the domestic front, Onal said he did not think that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's past participation in an Islamist movement that was banned a decade ago should prevent him from seeking the country's presidency.
While Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, the secular nature of the system is well established, Onal said.
Bloomberg contributed to this report.
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