Israel and Syria keep talking…

By Sami Kohen, June 20, 2008

Israeli and Syrian representatives held the second round of “proximity’’ talks in Istanbul this week through Turkey’s mediation.

Israeli sources described the atmosphere of the two-day talks as positive and constructive. There are indications that these indirect talks will continue in the coming weeks, although officials refrained from giving any clue as to the date of the next round.

The talks have been shrouded in secrecy from the beginning. The first round was held in Istanbul last month, when Israeli and Syrian representatives stayed in different hotels and the Turkish mediators — Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign-policy adviser of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Feridun Sinirlioglu, assistant under-secretary of the Foreign Minister — acted as go-betweens.

Recep Tayyip (left) and Bashar Assad during a meeting in Damascus in April

The talks, under the present “proximity’’ format, started after months of efforts by the Turkish government. Mr Erdogan has personally been involved in the exploratory contacts with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mr Erdogan is said to have been motivated to take this diplomatic initiative as a result of his talks with Mr Olmert, who seemed keen on holding negotiations with Syria. In fact, the news about the initiation of the Turkey-mediated talks was disclosed simultaneously early in May in the three capitals.

The first round of talks is understood to have focused mainly on procedural matters and listing the relevant issues to be negotiated. Some of those issues are said to have been tackled this week.

These cover a wide range of differences, over such matters as security arrangements and water distribution. 

The Israelis are thought to have made the return of the Golan Heights conditional on guarantees which would involve Syria stopping support for Hizbollah and distancing itself from Iran.

Mr Assad wants to get back the Golan which his father, Hafez Assad, lost in the 1967 war — and to end his international isolation.

As for Turkey’s interest in acting as a peace-broker, Ankara has good relations with Syria as well as with Israel and enjoys the confidence of both sides. Turkey has already proved that it can play the role of a regional power and has acted as a mediator between Israel and Pakistan and between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Last year, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were hosted by Mr Erdogan and invited to address the Turkish Parliament.

Last updated: 4:55pm, June 23 2008