PM: We must advance direct Syria talks

In ME, "what you don't do today, you might not succeed in doing tomorrow," Olmert tells Erdogan.

Olmert and Erdogan 248.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Olmert and Erdogan 248.88
(photo credit: GPO)
As the Syrian track took center stage on Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke in favor of advancing direct peace talks with Damascus. "In the Middle East, what you don't do today, you might not succeed in doing tomorrow," he told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. "We must advance direct peace talks with Syria." Olmert traveled to Turkey on Monday for meetings with Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and after meeting Gul said that "peace with Syria is achievable." It came after Syrian President Bashar Assad said direct talks were necessary, while Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu said he would not withdraw from the Golan Heights. Turkey has been mediating indirect talks between Syria and Israel, and is reportedly pressing for the sides to begin direct negotiations even before the January 20 inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama. While Olmert has signaled he was interested in direct talks, the Syrians have indicated they wanted to wait until the new US administration was in place, apparently hoping for intense US involvement. On Monday, Assad said that he believed direct peace talks with Israel were possible and would eventually take place. Speaking at a press conference in Damascus with his visiting Croatian counterpart, Assad said indirect negotiations alone cannot achieve peace. Comparing the peace process to the construction of a building, Assad said Syria and Israel were "now laying the foundations" for peace through the indirect talks. Meanwhile, Netanyahu vowed to maintain control over the Golan, on a visit to the region timed to coincide with Olmert's talks in Turkey. A day after he took the Likud faction to Sderot to urge the government to take action against Kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, he and other Likud MKs warned that Israel would be vulnerable on its border with Syria if it left the Golan. "We are here to say clearly to the people of Israel and the entire world that the government of Israel under the Likud's leadership will remain in the Golan and safeguard it as a strategic asset for the country's future," Netanyahu said. "It doesn't matter what Olmert says in Ankara. We say the government under my leadership will not withdraw from the Golan." Responding to Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's recent tough statements about toppling the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu, without mentioning Livni by name, blasted "politicians who are trying to evade responsibility after years of failed policies by making strong statements two months before the election." Netanyahu was joined on the tour by MKs Silvan Shalom, Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz and Limor Livnat, as well as two former generals on the party's Knesset slate, Moshe Ya'alon and Yossi Peled. Ya'alon said that "one doesn't need to be a military expert to know that Israel's border with Syria would be indefensible without the Golan." Peled said that giving up the Golan would be "suicide" and blasted Olmert for considering it. "We are in the Golan while someone is trying to sell us out in Turkey," Peled said. Two candidates were noticeable in their absence: Dan Meridor, who didn't come because he's in favor of giving up the Golan in a deal with Syria, and Moshe Feiglin, who expressed skepticism about Netanyahu's commitment to maintaining the region. Likud officials noted that Netanyahu hadn't said he would keep "all" of the Golan, nor did he address the possibility that Israel would return the area to Syria and then lease it for an extended period of time. Kadima released a statement revealing remarks that Netanyahu and Ya'alon had made in the past in favor of relinquishing the Golan, as well as excerpts from former Middle East mediator Dennis Ross's book The Missing Peace, in which he wrote that Netanyahu had offered Syria control of the entire Golan. AP contributed to this report.