By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN, TOVAH LAZAROFF
France is Israel's preferred broker for peace negotiations with Damascus, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the cabinet on Sunday as he rejected Syria's call for Turkey to hold such talks.
"Israel is ready for talks with Syria without preconditions, ideally direct talks. If there will be a mediator we prefer an honest one. The Turkish prime minister objectively did not strengthen the perception that he could be an honest mediator in recent weeks. I prefer the French," Netanyahu said.
Last Wednesday during a meeting in Paris, he asked French President Nicolas Sarkozy to tell the Syrians that he was willing to begin direct talks with them anytime, anywhere and without preconditions.
But after meeting with Sarkozy on Friday, Syrian President Bashar Assad rejected Israel's proposal, and said he preferred indirect negotiations brokered by Turkey.
Under prime minister Ehud Olmert, Israel and Syria held four rounds of indirect negotiations brokered by Ankara.
Now that negotiations with the Palestinians have hit an impasse, attention has turned to renewing efforts on the Syrian track.
Indirect talks with Damascus were broken off at the end of last December, during the IDF's offensive against Hamas in Gaza, and were never resumed.
Since then relations with Turkey have become strained. A source in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post that in light of the new tensions, it would be hard for Israel to trust Turkey as a mediator in indirect talks.
If the talks were direct, that would be a different story, the source said, explaining that any invitations to hold negotiations anywhere referred to direct talks.
But Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told the cabinet on Sunday, "Don't discount the Turks. We have important strategic relations with them that cannot be taken for granted."
A Turkish official told Channel 2 in response to Netanyahu that he made a "senseless and unfortunate decision that will only further isolate Israel and make the region even more explosive."
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