DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel are focused on the thorny issue of how much Syrian territory is under Israeli occupation, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday.
In the first official comment on the content of the talks, which began in May under Turkish mediation, Moualem said the two sides were seeking agreement on land Syria controlled before Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East war.
“We feel that the two sides are serious about solving the lingering issues that are being discussed. Foremost is determination of the June 4, 1967 line,” Moualem told reporters after meeting his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.
Nearly a decade of U.S.-supervised negotiations between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over the extent of a proposed Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, a water-rich plateau.
Syria argued then that it was in control before the 1967 war of parts of the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, on the edge of the Golan, and that these parts should be returned to Syria.
Israel captured the whole eastern shore along with the surrounding plateau in the war. The shoreline has since receded.
Moualem would not be drawn on the exact territorial lines Syria considers its borders. Control of the shoreline has been a major point of contention between the two sides, especially as Israel uses the lake as its main reservoir.
The late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president, seeking to prove the land belonged to Syria, told former U.S. President Bill Clinton he used to swim in the Sea of Galilee before 1967. He refused to sign a deal he considered fell short of liberating the whole of the Golan.
President Bashar al-Assad, shaped by his father’s struggle with the Jewish state, has said Israel must withdraw “from every inch” of the Golan.
Israel, in turn, wants Syria to cut ties with its main adversaries — the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
Assad said during a visit to Moscow last week that the next round of indirect talks with Israel, expected to begin on Wednesday, could prove crucial.
Moualem said the talks, four rounds of which have been held in Turkey since May, would remain indirect for the time being.
“Unfortunately there has not been enough progress for the talks to become direct,” he added.
Syrian foreign policy has focused on the Golan since its forced withdrawal of troops from Lebanon in 2005 after 29 years. The talks with Israel have helped Syria start to re-engage with the West after years of isolation over its role in Lebanon.
France’s Kouchner said on Monday he was “content” that Syria would exchange ambassadors with Lebanon before the end of the year after Assad and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman made a joint announcement on opening diplomatic ties this month.
France has led European efforts to persuade Damascus to establish normal sovereign relations with its smaller neighbor, including the first formal diplomatic ties since the two states were carved out of the old Ottoman Empire in 1920.
Editing by Catherine Evans