'Turkey to step in again as Israel-Syria mediator'

Israel downplays reports

Senior Israeli diplomatic officials cast doubt Saturday night on an Egyptian Al Ahram newspaper story reporting that Turkey will resume mediating indirect talks between Israel and Syria in the first half of 2010. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to arrive in Damascus for talks on December 22, and according to the Egyptian report on Saturday, he will present Syrian President Bashar Assad with a change in the Israeli position and report a willingness in Jerusalem to allow the Turks to mediate indirect talks. A Syrian diplomat told Al Ahram that the talks will resume in the first half of 2010 and that they would start from where they left off when Turkey cut off mediation efforts after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last winter. The report comes just two days before Erdogan meets in Washington with US President Barack Obama, and was seen by some observers in Israel as an effort to underline to the US administration Ankara's importance in Middle East diplomacy. But, senior Israeli officials said in response to the report, as a result of Turkey's statements and actions since the operation in Gaza, Turkey was no longer necessarily the preferred middleman. "Israel is ready for talks with Syria, and our preference is for direct talks without preconditions," one official said. "If that is impossible, we are ready to accept indirect talks, but obviously the mediator has to have full confidence of both sides." The official said that when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in France last month, and the question of re-starting the Syrian-Israeli channel was raised, Netanyahu said to French President Nicolas Sarkozy that perhaps he could be the intermediary. According to the official, Turkish "statements and actions over the last few months have unfortunately eroded somewhat the excellent bilateral relationship that existed in the past." Erdogan's continuous harsh criticism of Israel, as well as Turkey's cancellation of Israel's participation in a joint military maneuver in October, has strained ties. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said on several occasions, most recently on the eve of a trip to Turkey last month by Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, that Turkey could "no longer serve as an honest mediator" between Israel and Syria. Assad, on the other hand, stated on several occasions that Ankara "has proven itself trustworthy and capable." Ben-Eliezer, speaking at an Industry and Trade Ministry event in Beersheba on Saturday night, said that relations with Ankara were improving, adding that "I hope a meeting between Netanyahu and Erdogan will be the next step."