Israel postpones new round of Syria peace talks

DAMASCUS Wed Sep 17, 2008 11:46am EDT

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem speaks under a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad at a news conference in Damascus January 2, 2008. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem speaks under a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad at a news conference in Damascus January 2, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

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DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A fifth round of indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel has been postponed at the request of the Jewish state, Syria's foreign minister said on Wednesday.

Turkey, which has mediated four sessions of the contacts between the two countries, confirmed the delay in the talks which centre on the fate of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

"When Israel is ready to resume the talks, we will be ready as well," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told reporters in Damascus after a meeting with his Spanish counterpart Miguel Angel Moratinos in Damascus. The fifth round had been scheduled for Thursday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on September 4 the fifth round of indirect talks, originally scheduled for earlier this month, had been postponed at Israel's request because of the resignation of Israel's chief negotiator.

Assad had described the round as "crucial". He said the talks had reached the point of determining how much Syrian territory was under Israeli occupation. The issue caused the collapse of almost a decade of formal talks in 2000.

In Jerusalem, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined to go into detail on the delay but said Israel hoped the indirect negotiations would go on.

"Israel remains committed to the Turkish initiative and to the indirect talks with the Syrians. We are hopeful that the next round of talks will be able to begin shortly," he said.

Members of Israel's ruling Kadima party voted on Wednesday for a new leader to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has promised to resign following a corruption investigation in which he faces indictment.

Israeli negotiator Yoram Turbowicz announced his resignation as Olmert's chief of staff in July, shortly after the prime minister said he would leave office.

An Israeli government official said that Israel's attorney general has yet to authorize Turbowicz to continue his role as chief negotiator now that he is no longer in government, and said a ruling is expected next week.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that Israel has requested the postponement and said Turkey was seeking to set a date for a new round.

"Israel emphasized that it is ready to participate in the negotiations as soon as the technical and legal process is completed. The decision has been conveyed to Syria," he said.

The talks are focused on the fate of the Golan Heights, a fertile plateau that Israel captured in 1967. Damascus wants the whole territory returned.

Israel wants Syria to scale back ties with its main foes -- Iran and the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah groups. Syria has so far refused to do so.

The last direct talks between Israel and Syria broke down in 2000 in a dispute over how much of the Golan should go back to Syria. Syria's late President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, refused to sign a deal he regarded as falling short of returning the whole plateau.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara; Editing by Sami Aboudi)

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