ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's prime minister says his country is mediating between Syria and Israel in an effort to secure peace.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkey will try to restart low-level negotiations between the sides with the aim of eventually getting the countries' leaders together. He was speaking in Ankara on Saturday on his return from a trip to Damascus, where he attended a Turkish-Syrian business meeting and held talks with President Bashar Assad.
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"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.
"This effort will start among the lower level (officials) and if they are successful, God willing, they will end with a higher level meeting," the prime minister said.
Turkey has close ties with both Israel and Syria.
Assad said in an interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan published Thursday that Turkish mediation over the past year could lay the groundwork for direct talks with Israel.
Erdogan said Turkey's mediation was part of wider efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
"I believe that our peace diplomacy will, God willing, make positive contributions to (peace) in Iraq, between Syria and Israel or between Israel and the Palestinians," said Erdogan.
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, 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, a demand Syria rejected.
Olmert said earlier in April that he sent messages to Damascus on peace prospects but did not disclose the contents. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, declined to comment on the reports but said Israel is genuinely interested in restarting talks with Syria.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said this week that Syrian reports do not represent "the full picture" of Olmert's position because they don't address, for instance, the extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, Olmert's demands and Syria's response.
In his newspaper interview, Assad did not disclose details. He said his country may hold future direct talks with Israel, but not until a new U.S. administration that can broker such negotiations takes office.
Syria has had poor relations with the Bush administration, which leaves office in January 2009, because of different policies on Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinians.
The Bush administration alleged this week that North Korea was secretly assisting work on a nuclear reactor in Syria. It said the facility, which was destroyed by Israel in a September airstrike, was not intended for "peaceful purposes."
Syria has denied the reports and insists the facility bombed by Israel was an unused military facility.