- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

TEL AVIV — Turkey’s quiet diplomacy as a channel between Jerusalem and Damascus has gone high profile after Syrian President Bashar Assad said he got a message that Israel would return the strategic Golan Heights for a permanent peace with its archrival.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told reporters that Ankara’s goal is to prod the sides into renewing direct negotiations for the first time since talks broke down in 2000 at Shepherdstown, W.Va.

“When the issue is a little more mature, then I hope that the sides will meet each other,” he said, according the Ha’aretz newspaper. “There has been diplomatic traffic for the past year, which has intensified in the past few months.”

In addition to resolving a key Arab-Israel flashpoint and neutralizing a key Iranian ally, promoting Israel-Syria peace boosts the international profile of Turkey by highlighting its role as a regional peacemaker.

After meeting Mr. Assad in Syria in recent days, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to send an emissary to Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Turkey says it agreed to become a go-between at the request of both Israel and Syria.

“Both sides trust us as an honest broker,” said a spokesman for Turkey’s ambassador to Israel. “We have good relations with both sides. But it is not our initiative. We were requested by both sides.”

Previously, the U.S. took the lead in mediating between Israel and Syria, but a diplomatic vacuum was created when the Bush administration refused to talk to Syria.

Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries to have relations with Israel, and there is robust cooperation between the two militaries.

The Turks were initially enlisted by Syria as a go-between four years ago but, at the time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was not interested in pursuing the initiative.

A year ago, Mr. Olmert asked the Turks to serve as a channel, Turkish officials said.

“Who better than us? Turkey has good relations with Israel and the Arab countries. We can play the role of mediator,” said Sami Kohen, a prominent Turkish columnist and foreign policy analyst. “It’s the sense that we are a regional power, and we want to prove it.”

The talks come nearly two years after the war in Lebanon sharpened tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus.

Few in the region expect a peace deal between Syria and Israel soon. Though the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with Damascus, it has limited its contact with the Syrian government, accusing Syria of meddling in Lebanon and Iraq.

Israeli officials have sought to play down the significance of the talks.

Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said both nations have a strategic interest in resuming negotiations.

“Turkey is an important country to both Israel and Syria, but Turkey cannot drag both countries into this against their will,” the former diplomat said.

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