Netanyahu looks again at Turkish-mediation for talks with Syria

debkafile wonders if a new peace initiative – or two, are in the works between Paris, Damascus, Cairo and Jerusalem, as Washington looks on. This month, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu signaled Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy that he is ready to take a second look at reviving the Ankara-brokered negotiating channel with Damascus, notwithstanding Turkish prime minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan’s offensive attitude toward Israel and the close ties he is building with radical Iran.
This change of heart shows that Netanyahu may be cracking under the relentless pressure of Palestinians and some Arab governments blacklisting him as a negotiating partner for peace. To change his image, he may be knocking on doors to open lines to Syria and/or the Palestinians.
Two Jerusalem envoys will be heading out next week to test the ground.
Sunday, Nov. 22, President Shimon Peres is scheduled to sit down with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and toss around ideas for changing Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud’s mind about resigning and persuading him to drop his precondition for going back to the negotiating table: a halt in settlement and Jerusalem construction.
Trade and industry minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a former defense chief, meets Turkish defense minister Vecdi Gonul in Ankara Tuesday. He will go to work on repairing the rift between the Israeli and Turkish military chiefs by an offer to let the Turks go back to their former role as intermediary for indirect peace talks with Syria.
Erdogan and his foreign minister Ahmed Davutoolu were extremely pained when Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, ended this mission in December 2008 after nearly a year. That was when relations with Israel began to deteriorate.
Enter the action President Sarkozy, who received Netanyahu followed by Syrian president Bashar Assad in Paris in the second week of November:
debkafile‘s Paris sources report that Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s information minister and close aide to Bashar Assad, issued a carefully doctored statement last week about Sarkozy’s conversation with the Syrian president.
She told the media that Sarkozy had passed Assad a message from Netanyahu in which the Israeli prime minister purportedly said that the Syrian track is very important and he wants to open talks “without delay and without preconditions.”
She cited Assad as responding that he requires guarantees that Israel will return “Syria’s land” and restore the country’s “rights” – an allusion to the Golan Heights which Israel captured in 1967 after being attacked by Syria.
Shaaban went on to quote Sarkozy as asserting that such an agreement would be reached “as a result of negotiations, not as a precondition.”
“No,” Assad is said to have replied: “That will result in negotiations, and the result of negotiations will be peace.”
debkafile‘s Paris sources note that the Syrian minister’s version of the conversation omitted any reference to Damascus’ close strategic ties with Tehran, although this was the main topic of their encounter. Sarkozy held it up as the biggest barrier not only to peace talks with Israel but to progress toward improving US-Syrian relations. Assad was given to understand that until he gives up his intense ties with Iran, he can forget about fruitful diplomacy with the West.
Our Jerusalem sources also set the record straight on the message Netanyahu left with Obama and Sarkozy for passing on to the Syrian president. This is its general content:
The Syrians know me well from the negotiations I conducted with them in 1998-1999 through the mediation of the American businessman Ron Lauder. We attained broader agreement then than (former prime ministers) Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres reached with the former president Hafez Assad.
“I never give promises in advance; nor do I go into a dark tunnel scattering gifts along the way without knowing what awaits me at the exit,” said Netanyahu. His message went on to say: “Since you (the Syrians) want Israel to pledge in advance that it will withdraw from the Golan, I want an advance pledge plus guarantees that Syria will sever its strategic bonds with Iran.”
debkafile‘s Middle East sources report that it is early days for this initiative as yet. But although the gap between the two positions is substantial, the Israeli prime minister’s willingness to revive Turkish mediation has generated some slight movement towards a form of dialogue.
At the same time, the French president wants the role of mediator for Paris, not Ankara.
Israel would prefer running the talks through France rather than Ankara, but is waiting to hear where President Obama stands, while Assad needs Tehran’s approval, which was granted in the past when Turkey brokered the indirect talks, but is unlikely to extend to France.
In the nuclear talks taking place in Geneva and Vienna since early October, Iranian negotiators kept on insulting French representatives and demanding to have them thrown out of the talks. Their relations have been sorely strained since.
This week, Sarkozy visited Riyadh in search of Saudi support for a French role as middle-man between Israel and Syria. He came away without a clear answer.

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