ISTANBUL // More than a year after the breakdown of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria organised by Turkey, Ankara says it is close to bringing the two sides together again.
Turkey's move came as the United States was trying to get new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians on track during a visit by Joe Biden, the vice president. Observers in Turkey said US pressure on Israel was vital for the relaunch of talks with Syria as well. "There is renewed interest" in a continuation of indirect talks between Israel and Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, said during a visit to Saudi Arabia this week, according to news reports. He added that Syria was ready for new talks under Turkish mediation and that there had been positive signals from Israel as well.
Mr Erdogan said his government would study the Israeli response. "If there is a positive result of this evaluation, I want us to restart this process." Israel denied that it had resolved to engage in fresh indirect talks with Damascus under Turkish mediation. "No decision has been taken," The Jerusalem Post newspaper quoted the office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, as saying in a statement. But if Mr Erdogan's comments reflected "Turkey's desire to strengthen its relations with Israel and to contribute to peacemaking in the region - then Israel would clearly welcome that aspiration", Mr Netanyahu's office said.
Israel and Syria held five rounds of indirect talks under Turkish mediation in 2008. The talks about the future of the Israeli-held Golan Heights on the border between the two countries broke down when Israel launched its military operation in the Gaza Strip in late December that year, a move harshly criticised by Mr Erdogan. Under Mr Erdogan's government, Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation and Nato member with close ties both to the West and the East, has tried to play a more active role in the region in recent years. Besides staging the Israeli-Syrian talks, Ankara sent soldiers to serve in an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon and greatly increased its high-level contacts with several countries in the region.
Relations with Syria have greatly improved as a result, but at the same time Turkey's ties with traditional ally Israel have suffered as the Erdogan government accused the Israelis of targeting civilians in the Gaza operation and of preventing aid to get through to innocent people ever since. This year, relations took another hit when the Turkish ambassador in Israel was publicly humiliated by an Israeli official.
"Turkey needs stability in this region," Celalettin Yavuz, deputy director of the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, or Turksam, a think tank in Ankara, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Turkey has many neighbours, and it does not want to deal with political tensions all the time." Ankara says it is pursuing a policy of "zero problems" with all states in its vicinity, not least because simmering conflicts in the region prevent economic progress.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, recently returned from a visit to Damascus, was quoted by Turkish media yesterday as saying he was optimistic about the prospect of new indirect talks. Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, quoted government officials in Ankara as saying that indirect talks were "on the point of starting". Mr Yavuz of Turksam said much depended on how much pressure the United States, Israel's most important ally, was willing to put on Mr Netanyahu. "Israel is isolated at the moment, at least it feels isolated," Mr Yavuz said, adding that Mr Netanyahu's hardline government "does not have good relations with Europe or the US".
In the past, Israel said it was willing to engage in indirect talks with Syria, but under French, not Turkish, mediation. Syria, for its part, insisted on Turkey as mediator, Mr Yavuz said. "So you have two out of three countries willing to talk," he said. A Turkish success in getting fresh Israeli-Syrian talks underway may also help to lower the latest tensions between Ankara and Washington over the Armenian question.
Turkey pulled back its ambassador from Washington last week after a committee of the US Congress passed a resolution calling for the recognition of the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the former Ottoman Empire as genocide. Mr Erdogan told reporters in Riyadh that his government would not send the ambassador back to Washington for the time being. Mr Erdogan is expected to travel to Washington in mid-April.