Washington Watch: Talking Turkey

Washington Watch Talkin

With the US-led efforts to relaunch Palestinian-Israel peace negotiations stalled, there's talk of Washington and Jerusalem turning their attention to the Syrian track, but how promising is that? Here's the good news: Syrian President Bashar Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly insist they are ready to begin peace talks right away. Here's the bad news: They're not serious. Judging by the terms each has set, they appear more interested in scoring debating points than making peace. Their conditions are so totally unacceptable to the other that the chances of any meaningful talks resuming are remote. And the search for an honest broker to mediate those talks, if and when, only shows how dysfunctional the Israeli government has become. Two Israeli ministers insist the Turks are unqualified to resume their mediation while another says the opposite and rushes off to Ankara to mend fences with the encouragement of a fourth Israeli minister. Assad demands his terms be met up front - Israel must commit to total return of the Golan Heights to Syrian-defined borders. He's vague about what Israel gets in return beyond "the result will be peace," and he has said he is prepared to go to war to regain the Golan if talks fail. Moreover, Assad flatly refuses to loosen his ties to Iran and terror groups that remain committed to Israel's destruction. Netanyahu insists on talks with no preconditions. But in reality he has his own list of demands. His "no preconditions" is actually a condition itself: he refuses to resume talks where they left off late last year under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and he won't commit to returning to the June 4, 1967, border. The past six prime ministers, including Netanyahu in his first term a decade ago, conducted talks with Syria focused on withdrawal from all of the Golan in exchange for security arrangements and normalized relations. More recently, Netanyahu has spoken of remaining on the Heights and of demanding that Syria abandon its strategic alliance with Iran and its terror proxies. Netanyahu has called for a face-to-face meeting, but Assad not only rejected that, he also ruled out permitting the two teams of negotiators to meet in person, insisting they go through a mediator, preferably Turkey. CONFUSING AND contradictory Israeli statements about Turkey are one further complication. One influential part of the Israeli government prefers mediation by Turkey, once Israel's closest ally in the region and particularly in the Muslim world, while another rejects it. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the Turks are unqualified "after all the verbal attacks and insults toward us." (The Egyptians might say the same about Lieberman, who has said President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell.") And Netanyahu has said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not a "fair mediator" and Turkey has shown it cannot be an "honest broker" because of its vilification of Israel, the anti-Israel incitement in its media and its increasingly cozy relations with Syria and Iran. Hard to disagree with that after one reads Erdogan's rantings. He called Israel a worse violator of human rights than the genocidal regime of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir in Darfur ("It is not possible" for Muslims "to carry out genocide," he has said in defense of Bashir). He blocked Israel from participating in international military exercises in Turkey last month, and he accused Lieberman of threatening to use nuclear weapons in Gaza. So why did an Israeli newspaper this week run a headline saying "Israel urges Turkey to resume mediation of Syria talks"? Because that's the message Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer is delivering in Ankara this week, where he met with Erdogan and other top officials. Erdogan said he is ready to resume mediation but first Israel must do more for the Palestinians and Gaza. What set Erdogan off was what he considered Israel's excessive use of force in the Gaza War last winter. But there's an element that has nothing to do with Israel. He is mad at the Europeans for dragging their feet on Turkey's application to be the first Muslim country in the European Union. He shifted his focus to warming relations with the Muslim world, notably neighbors Syria and Iran, and seeking a role as regional military, economic and political leader and bridge between the West and the Islamic world. Ben-Eliezer has the backing of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Israeli military establishment, which considers relations with Turkey more important than the spitting matches between Erdogan and Lieberman. The military leadership also encourages reaching out to Syria and is believed much more flexible on making a deal than Israel's political leadership. The military establishment's top priorities are weakening the influence of Iran and maintaining Israel's strategic relationship with Turkey. The two have long shared intelligence and cooperated in fighting terrorism; Israel has had access to Turkish airspace and sells defense equipment and services to the Turkish military. Ben-Eliezer's message is we want to be friends again, we need each other, we want you to drop the vitriol and return to pre-crisis cordiality. If he is successful, Israel will have to ask itself whether Turkey, with its new alliances with Iran and Syria, can once again be a reliable partner for sharing sensitive intelligence and military technology. And repairing relations with Turkey may be the best route to the one Middle East peace track with any chance of progress anytime soon - the Israeli-Syrian track.