Turks try to find middle ground for Syria, Israel talks

"Strong political determination" needed by both sides, says Turkish Foreign Minister Ai Babacan.

babacan 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
babacan 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the issues Turkey is trying to work out between Israel and Syria as a prelude to direct negotiations is whether a Syrian announcement of ending support for terrorism needs to precede an Israeli guarantee that it will withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace, Western diplomats said Monday. According to the officials, one question being discussed in exchanges Turkey has carried between Jerusalem and Damascus over the last few months is what comes first, an Israeli announcement - in some yet to be determined from - regarding withdrawal from the Golan, or a Syrian announcement of ending support for Hamas and Hizbullah. Israel is also keen on a Syrian commitment to distance itself from Iran as part of any future peace agreement. Both sides were willing to hold discussions, the official said, but there was no agreement yet on the modalities. Turkish diplomatic officials meanwhile said no date had yet been set for a visit here by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's foreign policy adviser Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss the Syrian track. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office, meanwhile, denied reports Monday that a decision had been made that Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz would head discussions with the Syrians until a meeting was arranged between Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Nevertheless, Turbowicz - who does most of the heavy diplomatic lifting in the prime minister's name - is the natural candidate to engage the Syrians because he is among Olmert's most trusted advisers, and because he has been in contact with the Turks on a number of issues in the past. The Turkish press reported in March about efforts at the time to arrange a meeting between Turbowicz and a Syrian official in Turkey - a meeting that in the end never transpired. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, meanwhile, said Monday that a great deal remained to be achieved before any peace agreement between Israel and Syria, but that his country would continue to act as a go-between to encourage them to restart direct negotiations. Ali Babacan said an agreement would require "strong political determination" from both sides. "We are still at the very beginning of the process," Babacan told reporters during a news conference with New Zealand's foreign minister in Ankara. His comments were in response to a question on Turkey's mediation efforts. Babacan said Turkey would pass messages between the sides until they were ready to meet. "Talks will continue to take place through Turkey for a while," the foreign minister said. "When the issue is a little more mature, then I hope that the sides will meet each other." "It is a very promising development," Babacan said of Turkey's mediation efforts. "There has been diplomatic traffic for the past year, which has intensified in the past few months." Babacan said the government would not discuss details of the mediation. AP contributed to this report