Israeli officials respond by saying that nothing was finalized.
By HERB KEINON
In what appears to be a concerted effort to improve Syria's image abroad, Syrian President Bashar Assad granted his third newspaper interview in 10 days and said Israel and Syria were on the verge of an agreement before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched Operation Cast Lead in December.
"We were within touching distance of an agreement," the Italian daily La Republica quoted Assad as saying on Wednesday. "When we entered the negotiations, there were only a few final details relating to the 1967 border."
Last week, Assad granted interviews with both the United Arab Emirates daily al-Khaleej and the Japanese Ashai Shimbun, leading to speculation he was trying to go on a diplomatic offensive following the kick-off of the tribunal into the assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, which opened in The Hague on March 1.
Assad told the Italian paper that during the course of indirect talks between Israel and Syria, Olmert informed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Israel would indeed have to withdraw from the Golan Heights, and that it was the right thing to do.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev responded to Assad's claim by saying, "In going into the talks with the Syrians, we understood what they required, and they understood what we required."
It is widely believed that the indirect talks with the Syrians through the Turks focused on two primary issues: the Syrians were seeking clarification and satisfaction regarding where the final border would run on the Golan Heights, and Israel was looking for clarification as to what peace with Syria would mean and how this would impact on its relationship with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas.
According to Assad, many of the differences between the two sides had been hammered out during the indirect negotiations. Assad confirmed reports that on Olmert's trip to Ankara a few days before Operation Cast Lead, Erdogan had called Damascus, as Olmert was in another room.
"He wanted to speak with me urgently," Assad said.
The Syrian president said the only obstacle that stood in the way of direct talks was Israeli acceptance of a document on marking the Syrian-Israeli borders as those from June 1967.
"We were on the phone for hours and hours. Olmert was evasive," he continued. "I asked him - through Erdogan - for a clear answer. He suggested postponing the decision for a few days, in order to consult with his cabinet. However, four days later the war in Gaza broke out; another opportunity was missed."
Channel 2 reported Wednesday night that Olmert and Assad discussed, through Erdogan, the possibility of a meeting in Ankara the next day, and that if Assad could not make it, then Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would go instead. What was being discussed was a draft document whereby Israel would agree in principle to withdraw from the Golan Heights, and Syria would agree to end support for terrorism and cut itself off from Iran. The language was not agreed upon, and the idea, according to the report, was to work on it a few more days. In the interim, however, Operation Cast Lead was launched.
Turkish officials have said that the launching of the Gaza operation just days after Olmert was in Ankara was one of the reasons for the Turkish prime minister's extremely harsh criticism of Israel during and in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead.
Israeli officials would not confirm Wednesday that Israel and Syria were as close as Assad claimed to direct negotiations. "There was movement, but not enough," one official said. "Nothing was finalized, and nothing was approved."
With regard to the prospect that negotiations would continue under Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu, the Syrian president said to La Republica that the "finish line" was "drifting away." "Netanyahu doesn't worry me, but rather Israeli society's turn to the right. That is the greatest obstacle to peace," he said.
Dore Gold, one of Netanyahu's top foreign policy advisers, said last week that "Netanyahu has made it clear that presently he would like to focus on the Palestinian track," rather than the Syrian one.
Gold said the new government would conduct a policy review and determine its position toward negotiations with Syria. However, he said that there seemed to be more opportunity to make progress on the Palestinian track at this point, rather than on the Syrian one.
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