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Turkey urges Israel to accept Syria's overtures

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul urged Israel on Friday to work toward resuming peace talks with Syria and said Ankara was ready to continue its role as a mediator between the two foes.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul review a honour guard at al-Shaeb presidential palace in Damascus May 15, 2009. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri

“Israel has to show clearly it is a partner,” Gul said after talks with Assad in the Syrian capital.

“We have heard Syria say it is ready to resume the peace talks from the point where they stopped with the previous (Israeli) government. We in Turkey are also ready,” said Gul, speaking through a translator.

The indirect talks between Syria and Israel were formally suspended during the three-week Israeli offensive on the Gaza strip, which halted in January.

Assad said the Gaza invasion prevented the Turkish-mediated talks from moving to a direct phase.

“We cannot talk about a date (for resuming the talks) because we don’t have a partner,” Assad said.

Israel’s Haaretz daily reported that right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of Russian journalists last week that Israel will not withdraw from the Golan Heights because they are of strategic military value.

Syrian officials have refrained from responding to Netanyahu’s remarks. They also ignored statements last month by Israel’s ultra-nationalist foreign minister that the Jewish state would talk peace with Syria only if it stopped demanding an Israeli commitment to restore the occupied Golan Heights.

Netanyahu was involved in U.S.-supervised talks between Syria and Israel during his previous term as prime minister in the 1990s.

The talks, which lasted almost 10 years, collapsed in 2000 when Assad’s father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, refused an Israeli offer to withdraw from the Golan but keep several hundred meters on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Syria occupied the fertile Golan plateau, which overlooks Damascus and the lake, Israel’s main water reservoir, during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in the 1980s in a move rejected by the United Nations Security Council.