Following reports that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to resume indirect peace talks with Syria, Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni on Friday asserted that Damascus must sever its ties with Iran and Hezbollah before Israel accedes to its demands.
"Before the Syrians get from us what they want, they must show through their actions that they intend to stop arming Hezbollah, and must cut ties with Iran and terrorism," Army Radio quoted her as saying.
Livni, who will seek to bring the ruling Kadima party victory in upcoming general elections, also said Friday that the government "must determine if we are talking about continuing just the talks - or determining facts on the ground before elections, something that is not appropriate or acceptable."
"The government needs at this time to focus on the management of the country and find solutions to the problems facing us right now, nothing more than this," Livni added.
The official who reported that Olmert intends to continue talks added that talks between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the bureau of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be held next week to try to coordinate an agreed-on date for what would be the fifth round of indirect talks with the Syrians.
In response to the report, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz slammed Olmert as having delivered a "simultaneous blow to the principles of democracy and the crucial interests of the State of Israel," by carrying out such negotiations with Syria.
Meanwhile, Livni has called for an increase of international pressure on Syria.
Olmert's intention to resume talks has raised fury among right-wing lawmakers, especially as the government elections.
Olmert met Tuesday with Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, who had held a two-hour meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad a few days earlier in Damascus. Assad expressed a desire to continue talks with Israel, and was "very serious," the Danish minister told Olmert.
Moeller also said Assad had told him he was willing to conduct direct negotiations with Israel while President George W. Bush is still in office, if Assad were to receive a satisfactory response from Israel to the "six-point document" he gave the Turkish prime minister in September.
According to an Israeli government source, Israel is aware of the content of the document. Haaretz has learned that the document contains three points dealing with the marking of the border of the Golan Heights and three points dealing with security issues in the framework of a peace treaty between the two countries.
Olmert reportedly told Moeller that his intentions toward the Syrians were also serious and noted that he had said as much in an interview he gave recently to Yediot Ahronoth. Olmert also reportedly told Moeller that Israel would answer the Syrians' questions at the coming meeting. The Prime Minister's Bureau declined to comment on the matter.
If a date is set for another round of talks, it will be handled by the same team as the previous rounds, including Yoram Turbovicz and and Shalom Turjeman. Turbovicz retired in August from his position as Olmert's bureau chief and recently received approval from the attorney general to head the negotiating team on a voluntary basis. The arrangement for Turbovicz was several months in the making, one of the reasons talks with the Syrians were frozen.
The six-point document was first made public at a summit in Damascus at the beginning of September, attended by the president of France, the Turkish premier and the emir of Qatar, where Assad announced that he had given the document to Ankara, and that it included Syria's demands regarding an agreement with Israel. Assad is believed to view Israeli agreement to the document, which Israel received via Turkey, as a condition for a move to direct talks.
Despite Olmert's desire to talk to the Syrians, he may find it difficult to do so because of the major tensions between Damascus and Washington following the U.S. air attack on Syrian territory on Sunday, which killed eight people. Syria took a number of steps against American institutions in Damascus, and the U.S. State Department announced that the American Embassy in Damascus would be closed until further notice.
Syria announced Thursday it would withdraw its Border Guard forces from the border with Iraq as a "punitive measure" against the United States for the bombing. A huge anti-American demonstration was also organized in Damascus to protest the attack. ABC News reported on Friday that the Bush Administration nixed a proposal by incoming head of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus to visit Syria shortly after he takes over the post as the top U.S. commander for the Middle East.
The last round of Turkish-mediated indirect talks between Israel and Syria ended the same day Olmert announced he was leaving office in the wake of the investigations against him. The fifth round, planned for the beginning of September, was postponed because of the political situation in Israel and Turbovicz's departure.
Olmert kept a low political profile after the Kadima primary to allow the party's new chairwoman, Livni, to conduct coalition talks without interruption. However, sources told Haaretz that following Livni's failure to form a government and the call for early elections, with Olmert now having at least three months left in office, Israel initiated the move to renew talks with the Syrians.
Renewing talks with Syria does not exceed Olmert's authority as head of a transition government; however, he could find himself the subject of criticism by Livni. Livni told the Turkish defense minister Thursday that the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah was very serious, adding, "International pressure must be brought to bear on Syria to stop this phenomenon."
Olmert did not discuss the diplomatic talks in his speech at the opening of the Knesset's winter session Monday, but he did note that "the interests of the country do not go into deep-freeze. Olmert also said that "the feeling of a preelection freeze is misleading - there are decisions to be made and a country to run. The decisions will be made and the country will be run."
Meanwhile, a Syrian commentator living in the West, Camille Alexandre Otrakji, said he believed the proposal raised by President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to negotiate based on the Arab peace initiative could be dangerous. In a blog on a public affairs Web site focusing on Syria, Otrakji wrote that the initiative could "...probably be another cycle of chaos, violence, war threats followed by a sequence of flipping peace tracks." Otrakji does not represent the official Syrian position, but his comments are apparently close to that position.
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