Turkish PM visits Syria in push for Israel peace deal
Eds: AMs; CORRECTS that reports referred to Erdogan, not Turkey's president, graf 4.
By SAM F. GHATTAS
Associated Press Writer
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) --Turkey's prime minister flew to Damascus Saturday and said he was trying to restart direct talks between Syria and Israel, stepping up his nation's behind-the-scenes efforts to negotiate a peace deal between the longtime enemies.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent five hours in Syria meeting with President Bashar Assad and discussing Turkish efforts to mediate a deal.
"There was a request from Syria and Israel for this kind of an effort and Turkey will do its best in this regard," Erdogan said on his return to Turkey. "This effort will start among the lower level (officials) and if they are successful, God willing, they will end with a higher level meeting."
Erdogan did not mention statements by Syrian officials and media in the past week saying that he recently gave Syrian officials a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicating Israel was willing to give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty. Olmert said this month that he sent messages to Damascus on peace prospects, though he would not disclose details.
Israel had no immediate comment Saturday. But the developments suggest some progress in back-channel contacts between Syria and Israel, despite heightened tensions over Lebanon and an Israeli airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in September.
Assad said in a statement carried by Syria's official news agency that his meeting with Erdogan "focused on means to activate the process of just and comprehensive peace." He praised the Turkish initiative and said Syria would cooperate "in whatever brings security and stability to the region."
Israel and Syria's last round of direct talks broke down in 2000 over the details of Israel's proposed withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which it seized in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel wanted to keep a small coastal strip around the Sea of Galilee to ensure its control of the lake's vital water supplies but Syria rejected the demand.
Assad said in an interview with the Qatari newspaper al-Watan that Turkish mediation could lay the groundwork for direct talks with Israel. Assad said talks would continue indirectly with Turkey as a go-between. Future talks needed to be brokered by the United States under a new administration, he said.
Asked in the interview whether people in the Middle East should expect a solution in the near future, Assad said: "No, don't because of the second party (Israel). I cannot guarantee that."
Fresh excerpts of the interview conducted by Al-Watan's general manager, Ahmad Ali, were provided to The Associated Press Saturday ahead of Sunday's full release.
Turkey has close ties with both Israel and Syria as well as with the United States.
Syrian relations with the Bush administration are poor, and tensions remain high over Lebanon, Iraq and support for Palestinian militants.
Olmert has never committed himself publicly to a return of the Golan, saying only he is willing to resume peace negotiations with Syria if it drops its support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said this week that Syrian reports do not represent "the full picture" of Olmert's position.
Associated Press reporter Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.