Monday, April 28, 2008

Israel ‘Okayed’ Turkey’s Syria Initiative

Rachelle Kliger

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, flanked by Bashar Al-Asad (r) and Ehud Olmert.
A Turkish initiative to lay the groundwork for negotiations between Israel and Syria was approved by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, officials in Jerusalem told Israel’s Army Radio.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Syrian president Bashar Al-Asad in Damascus on Saturday and presented a plan to restart negotiations between Syria and Israel.
According to the Turkish plan, senior officials from Israel and Syria will meet and lay the groundwork for negotiations. In the next stage Olmert will meet with Al-Asad and discuss the main issues at stake.

Erdogan said Israel and Syria asked Turkey to mediate as it has good relations with both countries.

Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office said it was “not commenting” on the matter.

Following the meeting between the Turkish and Syrian leaders, Al-Asad said Syria was ready to cooperate with Turkey “in any effort that brings security and stability to the region.”

Ahmad Munir Muhammad, a member of the Syrian parliament’s National Security Committee, said Syria was fully prepared to forge a peace deal with Israel on condition that United Nations resolutions were implemented. These conditions would include giving back the entire Golan Heights, he told The Media Line.

Whether a peace deal can be forged within the next year depends on Israel and the United States, Munir said. If the U.S. continues to support Israel and be an obstacle to peace, there will be no peace, he said.

Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from Tel Aviv University, said the latest initiative is “more than just a rumor mill.” However, he stressed contacts were still in the very initial stages and it was uncertain whether this initiative would yield any results.

“This is an Israeli attempt to feel things out and see whether there are conditions for renewing negotiations with the Syrians and willingness to feel things out from the Syrian side,” Zisser said.

The U.S., Zisser said, would have to be included in this process because Turkey could not handle this alone.

“Turkey can play the part of passing messages between the parties and mitigating the hostility, because Turkey has good relations with both countries,” he said.

However, a backing from Washington was imperative to handle issues such as compensation for Israelis who might be evacuated from the Golan, or pressuring either side into making concessions.

The Turkish plan coincides with rumors in the Israeli media that Olmert has agreed to give the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a peace deal between the two countries.

The Golan is a plateau on the border of Israel, Lebanon and Syria spanning an area that fits more than twice into Rhode Island. Israel captured the Golan from the Syrians in 1967 and soon thereafter sent Israelis to populate the area.

The Golan is an important asset for Israel because of its natural and strategic benefits, particularly in water resources and security.

It is currently home to an estimated 35,000 people, half of whom are Druze.

Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981. The United Nations views the Golan as land occupied by Israel.

Negotiations between Israel and Syria over the fate of the Golan Heights collapsed in 2000.

Meanwhile, Syria is denying allegations that it has been striving to build a secret nuclear program with North Korean help. A CIA briefing to the United States Congress last Thursday said Syria was building a nuclear facility, but that the facility was severely damaged in an aerial strike that took place in September 2007. It is widely believed Israel carried out the attack, although Jerusalem has not explicitly confirmed this.

Israel is worried that the briefing detailed intelligence information that could expose Israel’s intelligence sources in Syria.

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