Olmert hints at secret Syrian track

Ex-Foreign Ministry official: Turkey is conduit for messages between Jerusalem and Damascus.

Abbas olmert walk 224.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Abbas olmert walk 224.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted Wednesday night at the prospect of secret talks with Syria. "I [have] said indeed that I'm prepared to make peace with Syria," Olmert said at a press conference with the foreign media in Jerusalem. "I hope that the Syrians are prepared to make peace with Israel, and I hope that the circumstances will allow us to sit together. That doesn't mean that when we sit together, you have to see us." Olmert did not elaborate, and his spokesman would not add anything to his words. But Alon Liel, the former director-general of the Foreign Ministry who is lobbying the government to open talks with Syria, said that while he didn't know of any direct secret talks taking place now, it was an open secret that Turkey was conveying messages between Damascus and Jerusalem. The middleman, Liel said, was Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leading foreign policy adviser, who travels frequently to Damascus. Olmert's statement represented a further metamorphosis in the prime minister's position on talks with Syria, Liel said. Olmert first began talking about a willingness to negotiate with Syria in May 2007, saying that he would be the fourth prime minister who would be willing to pay the price of a withdrawal from the Golan Heights, after Yitzhak Rabin, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak indicated a willingness to do so, according to Liel. Two months later, Liel said, Olmert went to the US for talks, and was told by US President George W. Bush, who was not interested in a dialogue with Syrian President Bashar Assad, that Israel could do it alone, but should not count on American involvement. This was not something the Syrians were keen on, because they have made clear they want intense American involvement, as they see talks with Israel as a way to improve their relations with Washington. Following that visit, Liel said, Olmert dropped the Syrian issue, largely because the Annapolis process became the focus, and because Bush was not keen on the idea. But in the past few weeks, Liel said, Syria had returned to the forefront in Olmert's thinking, both because "he understands that Annapolis is leading nowhere," and because the Bush administration is nearing the end of its term. Liel said that a significant shift in the prime minister's mindset became apparent last week during a meeting between the German and Israeli cabinets, where Olmert said that engaging Damascus could lead Syria to break with Iran, an opinion articulated at a recent cabinet meeting by the head of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin. The Mossad, however, takes the opposite approach, feeling that Syria will not be moved out of the Iranian orbit. Up until now, Liel said, Olmert's position was that to have talks with Israel, the Syrians would have to change their behavior regarding Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. Now, Liel said, Olmert has begun speaking in terms of the talks possibly leading the Syrians to change their behavior. The most significant element of what Olmert said Wednesday regarding Syria, according to Liel, was not that Damascus and Jerusalem could hold discussions away from the glare of the media, but rather that he hoped the "circumstances will allow" Israel and Syria to sit together. That circumstance, Liel said, was a new US administration that would likely have a less rigid view against engagement with Syria. The Syrians were not interested in secret talks, but wanted them to be open and to involve the Americans, Liel said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was in the region last week and visited both Damascus and Jerusalem, broached the idea in Syria of the Golan issue coming up at an international Middle East conference the Russians hope to host in June. The EU's ambassador to Israel, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, said at a press briefing Wednesday that one of the added-value elements that he could see in an international conference in Moscow could be a discussion of the Syrian track. He said the EU position on the conference was "open," and that Brussels was waiting to see what the parties had to say. Olmert, meanwhile, expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the conference proposal at his press conference. "I think quite frankly, as I said to Secretary Lavrov, that what we need to make peace in the Middle East is to sit the two sides together to talk, rather than going to international conventions. This going from one convention to the other is not something I am particularly in favor of." Olmert repeated his commitment to the Annapolis process, though he seemed to add a new nuance to his previous statements, saying that Israel and the Palestinians hoped to reach an agreement - albeit not implement it - by the end of 2008. Instead of talking about an agreement with the Palestinians Wednesday, Olmert said, "What we are trying to achieve this year is to reach a very accurate outline and definition of all the basic parameters of a two-state solution. If we will reach it this year, then this will be a historic breakthrough that will lay the foundations for a permanent peace between us and the Palestinians." Regarding Hamas, Olmert made it clear that Israel would not hold discussions with the Islamist group. "We are not speaking to Hamas, and we are not going to speak to Hamas. We are going to fight with Hamas because Hamas is continuing terrorist attacks against innocent Israelis in various parts of the country, and there can be no compromise on this," he said. Asked repeatedly why Israel wasn't doing more to ease the situation for the Palestinians in the West Bank, including removing checkpoints and roadblocks, Olmert said Israel was "trying to find the appropriate balance between our security needs and the access and movement needs of the population." A major terrorist attack, he said could "ruin the entire process." On the subject of easing restrictions, Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad at his home in Tel Aviv for talks on implementing a number of goodwill gestures aimed at bolstering Fatah in the face of Hamas. Defense officials said the rationale behind the gestures was the fear that Hamas would take over the West Bank, not just by force but also by elections. "We need to ease restrictions so people in the West Bank will understand that Abbas and Fayad are the right leadership and not Hamas," a defense official said. Barak presented Fayad with the list of gestures that included the deployment of 600 Palestinian security personnel currently training in Jordan in Jenin. The armed policemen in Jenin would be charged with maintaining order in the town during the day, but the IDF would retain security control and would continue to operate there at night. Other proposed gestures included opening a VIP lane at West Bank checkpoints and exempting Palestinian businessmen who are approved by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) from inspections. Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.