PM says Olmert requested Turkish mediation with Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert requested Turkey start mediation with Syria, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated, reported Todayszaman.

Erdoğan, speaking to a group of reporters aboard a plane from Beirut to Ankara late Monday, said indirect talks between Syrian and Israeli officials in İstanbul last week ended positively but expressed concern that there could be opposition to the peace process from within Israel. "My only concern is that Israel could have troubles. As you know, Mr. Olmert is facing some reactions in this respect," said Erdoğan.

The Turkish-mediated talks between Israel and Syria were announced in coordinated statements last week. But the announcement came as Olmert found himself mired in yet another corruption probe -- the fifth investigation into his conduct since he took office in 2006. Analysts and opposition lawmakers suggested the new announcement was designed to divert attention from Olmert's legal woes. 

Another problem is that a possible peace deal that would require Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria is highly unpopular in Israel. A recent poll revealed that only 19 percent of Israelis are willing to cede the entire Golan Heights, down from 32 percent a month ago.

Olmert said yesterday that Israel had made no commitment to Syria to pull out of the Golan Heights in indirect talks that began a year ago. "From February 2007 to May 2008, nothing was said aside from 'you know what I want, and I know what you want -- so let's talk'," Olmert told a parliamentary committee, Reuters reported, citing a senior official who briefed reporters on the closed-door session. "There is no commitment aside from the statement which I made and there will be nothing else," said Olmert.

The secret talks began a year ago and several have been held so far. "Olmert himself raised the issue and told me 'you have good ties with Bashar [Assad]. I'm ready for talks if you mediate.' Then Bashar told me that he would welcome Turkish mediation," Erdoğan said.

The Turkish mediation drew praise from the United States, European countries and Russia and received wide coverage in the international press. But Erdoğan lamented that the Turkish media had not shown much interest in the talks. "Hundreds of news items were published in the world media, while the issue has almost gone unmentioned in the Turkish media. Turkey set the international news agenda and it's not proper to ignore this," said Erdoğan.

Amid heightened political tension at home, the government has received little credit within Turkey for its foreign policy achievements. The announcement of the Turkish-mediated talks coincided with a bitter war of words between the Supreme Court of Appeals and the government on Wednesday, which dominated the newspapers' front pages the next day.

Erdoğan also stated that Turkey played a major role in a Qatari-brokered deal between Lebanese groups that ended an 18-month political stalemate and allowed election of army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as president of the country on Sunday. Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan were present at the Lebanese Parliament to witness the vote.

The prime minister said Turkey was instrumental in the emergence of Suleiman as the only candidate for president. "There was intense diplomatic traffic. I sent Ahmet Davutoğlu [his chief foreign policy advisor] to Lebanon; we spoke to Lebanese and Syrian leaders on the phone. Our ambassador in Beirut, Serdar Kılıç, had important meetings while all other ambassadors had withdrawn to their residences due to street clashes," said Erdoğan.

While in Beirut, Erdoğan met with Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and leader of the majority in Lebanese Parliament Saad al-Hariri.

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