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INTERVIEW - Israel shuts door on Turkish-mediated Syria talks

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel under right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not resume Turkish-mediated peace talks with Syria, insisting that any new negotiations be direct, a senior Israeli government official said on Wednesday.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon sits in his office during an interview with Reuters in Jerusalem in this April 20, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/Files

“We have enormous respect and great appreciation for the Turkish efforts. But they have not succeeded -- not because of the Turks,” Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Reuters in an interview.

“It’s because of Syrian intransigence,” he added, saying there would be no new recourse to Turkish mediation.

Netanyahu’s centrist predecessor Ehud Olmert engaged Damascus through Ankara last year, with all sides reporting some progress. A political scandal that forced Olmert from office, and Israel’s January war in Gaza, put those contacts on hold.

In power since March, Netanyahu has offered direct talks without preconditions -- a reference to the Syrian demand that Israel commit itself in advance to returning the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in a 1967 war.

Israel also insists Syria distance itself from Iran and from Islamist guerrillas arrayed against the Jewish state in Lebanon and Gaza. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been dismissive of that demand and predicted no breakthroughs with Netanyahu.

Asked if the Netanyahu government was ruling out a return to the mediated talks, which both Turkey and Syria have proposed reviving, Ayalon said: “Correct.”

“We have just benefited from the experience that shows that proximity talks did not work,” he said, speaking in English.

“If they (Syria) are really serious on peace, and not just a peace process which may serve them to extricate them from international isolation, if they are really serious, they will come and sit with us.”


The overtures to Olmert helped Assad’s relations with the West, long frayed over Syrian involvement in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq, alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and sponsorship of Palestinian militants.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who is trying to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking as well as stabilise Iraq, has sent envoys to coax Syria into the circle of diplomacy.

Like Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Ayalon is from the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, junior partner to Netanyahu’s conservative Likud in the coalition government.

Lieberman keeps a low media profile and has largely ceded public diplomacy to Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.