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A senior United Nations official has harshly criticized Israel's indirect negotiations with Syria, whose second round ended yesterday, charging that "Israel has given Syria a huge gift, without thus far receiving anything in exchange."

Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, made the comments last week in a conversation with Israeli diplomats.

In a classified telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Israel's UN delegation wrote that Larsen had complained that "Syria is receiving legitimacy for free."

"Europe is courting the Syrians because of the negotiations with Israel, and they are no longer being asked to give anything in exchange," the telegram quoted Larsen as saying.

Larsen is considered one of the UN's leading experts on Middle Eastern affairs, and especially on Syrian and Lebanese issues. However, he has an extremely negative view of Syrian President Bashar Assad, due to Assad's meddling in Lebanon in general and his suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in particular.

The key element of the resolution Roed-Larsen is charged with overseeing, which was adopted in 2004, was a demand that Syrian forces exit Lebanon, though the text also urges the dismantling of all Lebanese militias.

Nor is Larsen the only international player to express reservations about the Israeli-Syrian talks: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently that it was more important right now to focus on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It is not clear whether Rice reiterated this comment to Israeli officials in her talks with them earlier this week.

The second round of talks lasted two days. Once again, the parties refrained from talking directly; rather, Turkish mediators ferried messages back and forth.

According to a senior Israeli official, the session ended with an agreement to continue the discussions intensively, and dates were set for two more meetings over the next few weeks. These sessions, like their predecessors, will take place in Turkey, but the Turks are keen to keep the exact location secret. It is still not known whether the latest round took place in Ankara or Istanbul.

Israel's representatives at the talks, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman, told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the atmosphere was positive and constructive. Turkish officials echoed this assessment.

From Turkey, Turbowicz and Turgeman preceded to France to discuss an upcoming trip to Israel by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the summit Sarkozy will host next month on his plan to establish a union of Mediterranean countries. Assad and Olmert are both among the 47 leaders who received invitations, and an Israeli official told Reuters that Sarkozy is trying to arrange a meeting between them. However, Jerusalem considers it highly unlikely that Assad will agree.