Istanbul Calling: Are Israel and Syria Ready to Negotiate?
Lots of chatter these days revolving around the issue of reviving negotiations between Syria and Israel. In recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeated his desire to return to the negotiating table with Israel and even asking for European and American help to make this happen (although insisting that the negotiations be indirect and use Turkish mediation.) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has stated that he’s ready to start talking with the Syrians (although insisting that the negotiations be direct and ruling out Turkey as a mediator, since he no longer considers it “fair.”)
Hard to know where this might go. Both countries, in the past, have turned to negotiating with each other for a mix of reasons (some more sincere than others). For Israel, the Syrian track has always been a good one to fall back on — even if it goes nowhere — when things start falling apart on the Palestinian front. On the other hand, there are also Israeli decision makers who believe that making peace with Syria is essential for helping neutralize the Iranian threat. For the Syrians, getting back the Golan Heights has long been a priority. But negotiating with Israel (or even just talking about it) is also looked at as a way of repairing Damascus’s strained ties with the west. In the mean time, both countries seem to be setting things up so that it appears like it’s the other one that’s not interested in getting the talks back on track.
The two countries, of course, held a round of secret indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey during 2007 and 2008. Although Ankara claims these talks were scuttled by Israel’s invasion of Gaza earlier this year, there are observers who believe that the negotiations were already stalled before that (for some background on this, take a look at this previous post, which has links to related articles). Since Gaza, Turkish-Israeli relations have grown increasingly strained and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Israel increasingly harsh, and it is very difficult for me to envision the current Israeli administration turning to Ankara as a mediator in talks with Damascus.
Meanwhile, in the absence of Turkish mediation, other countries have suggested their services as matchmakers for Syria and Israel. France has indicated it could bring the two together (Judah Grunstein offers the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that perhaps “France might mediate between Israel and Turkey, so that Turkey can mediate between Israel and Syria.”). Even tiny Croatia and distant Brazil — perhaps feeling flush after winning their Rio Olympics bid — have recently volunteered their services as possible mediators. Who’s next?
Where does all of this leave Turkey? Is there any future role for Ankara on the Syria-Israel front following the nose dive that relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have taken? Hard to see it, at least from the Israeli perspective. Turkish officials have said they will support any efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, but I also get the sense that there are some in Turkey who aren’t quite ready to accept that it might not be Ankara that will be bringing Syria and Israel together. Following up on Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to set France up as a possible mediator, the English-language Today’s Zaman (part of the pro-government Zaman group) reported on Nov. 17, in an article headlined “Sarkozy tried in vain to replace Turkey as peacemaker,” that:
The Syrian president was in Paris on Friday, two days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the city and said he was ready to meet the Syrian president anywhere, at any time, without pre-established conditions, to re-launch talks over the Israeli-Syrian dimension of the broader Mideast peace process.
Sarkozy, who apparently wanted to steal the show in the Middle East process, tried to arrange the two leaders’ visits to Paris at the same time. This way, even if he could not succeed in gathering Assad and Netanyahu together, he would be able to introduce their simultaneous presence in Paris as “France’s great role in peace efforts.” However, Assad said he would not land in Paris until Netanyahu’s plane departed the city, spoiling Sarkozy’s plans.
Take that, Sarko! An article in the Turkish-language Zaman was even more explicit, (misleadingly) reporting that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had “warned” the French not to get involved. Considering the value that reviving Syrian-Israeli talks would have for the region, portraying any other country’s efforts to mediate between the two enemies as “stealing” Turkey’s show strikes me as profoundly unconstructive.
[UPDATE -- Erdogan has now spoken on the mediation issue, admitting that Israel no longer trusts Turkey to play the mediator role. From Reuters:
"Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert trusted Turkey, but Netanyahu doesn't trust us. That's his choice," he said in remarks which were televised in Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have soured since the latter launched an incursion into the Gaza Strip in December.
Erdogan, whose ruling party traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement, has repeatedly criticised the incursion, even having a public shouting match with Israeli President Shimon Peres in January.
Netanyahu and Assad met French President Nicolas Sarkozy separately last week, and Israel said it is ready for talks.
"Now France is trying to take up the role we had," Erdogan said. "I'm not sure what kind of stance Bashar Assad will take, but from what I've heard from him, they're not going to accept something like this."]
(For more on Turkey, visit Istanbul Calling.)
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