Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Israeli-Syrian peace talks resume

AGENCIES , JERUSALEM

A Palestinian woman walks in the market in Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert backed away on Monday from a target date on forging a deal with the Palestinians by the end of the year.

PHOTO: AP

Israel and Syria were to begin yesterday a fourth round of indirect peace talks under Turkish mediation, an Israeli official said.

Two advisers to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbowitz — were to travel to Turkey during the day to resume the talks, the source said on condition of anonymity.

“Israel’s desire for peace is very serious,” the official said. “That is why we expect that the process that has been begun will soon evolve into direct bilateral negotiations with a view to achieving significant results.”

The Israeli-Syrian talks started in May after an eight-year freeze, and the third round was held early this month.

Under the format of the talks, Israeli and Syrian officials do not see each other and Turkish diplomats shuttle between them.

On Monday, Syria’s ambassador to the US called for an end to the “state of war” with Israel.

“We desire to recognize each other and end the state of war,” Imad Mustafa told a gathering of activists in Washington allied with Israel’s Peace Now movement.

“Here is then a grand thing on offer. Let us sit together, let us make peace, let us end once and for all the state of war.”

However, he added that any peace agreement would depend on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

On Monday, Olmert told parliament a full Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that includes Jerusalem was not within reach this year but said differences over borders and refugees were bridgeable.

US President George W. Bush had urged both sides to sign a “peace treaty” before he leaves office in January, without offering details about what that deal should entail.

But Olmert, in remarks released by parliament after a closed-door hearing, said Jerusalem was too contentious an issue to be resolved this year and that Israel and the Palestinians should instead agree on a “mechanism” to tackle it next year.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Olmert’s comments showed “Israel’s determination to destroy the negotiations and the peace process.”

Olmert, who this month said Israel and the Palestinians had never been so close to an agreement, has been talking up peace prospects as he clings to office in the face of a police investigation that could force him to step down.

Officials said Olmert envisaged agreeing a joint document this year with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that sets out borders for a future Palestinian state, security arrangements and a way to deal with millions of Palestinian refugees. But the thorny issue of Jerusalem would be left out, they said.

“I do not see a viable possibility of reaching understandings on the issue of Jerusalem in the stated time frame,” Olmert was quoted by an official as saying.

“On the other three issues, I estimate that it would be possible to reach understandings by the end of the year, including the refugee issue,” Olmert said, describing the gaps on borders, refugees and security as “not insurmountable.”

Nabil Abu Rdainah, Abbas’s spokesman, said Jerusalem was a “red line” for Palestinians, who want the city’s Arab eastern half as the capital of their future state.

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