Syria says talk of direct Israel contact premature

PARIS (Reuters) – Syria’s foreign minister said on Friday it was premature to talk of direct peace negotiations with Israel, a day after the Jewish state called for face-to-face discussions to start soon.

A third round of indirect talks between the long-standing foes took place in Istanbul this week and ended with an agreement to hold a fourth round of negotiations in Turkey in late July, a Turkish government source told Reuters on Thursday.

“It’s premature to answer this question,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said when asked when direct talks could be held. He confirmed that both sides had agreed to hold a fourth round of indirect talks, but did not say where or when.

“The moment when we feel that we’ve got the agreed common ground between us and the Israelis, which covers all elements of a peace agreement, we will agree on the location of these direct talks,” he said in a question and answer session at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI).

Syria, demanding that Israel return all of the Golan Heights it seized in 1967, insists peace talks can only succeed with the full involvement of the United States — unlikely to materialize under President George W. Bush, who views Damascus as an “evil” ally of Iran and of groups hostile to U.S.-Israeli interests.

“The direct talks need an active American participation and sponsoring. To give guarantees we need an active European role maybe represented by France. We need also a role for Russia, a role for the United Nations for these talks,” Moualem said.

THAW

Moualem was due to meet his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner during his trip to Paris ahead of the July 13 launch summit for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union project, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are due to attend.

Sarkozy’s chief of staff Claude Gueant said last month the leaders might meet on the sidelines of the summit, but an official close to Sarkozy has since said that is unlikely.

Moualem said he was not due to discuss the issue at a meeting with Gueant later on Friday.

“It is not on the agenda at all,” he said, playing down the possibility of a direct encounter any time soon.

“We are at the beginning,” Moualem said, adding that he had spent 10 years negotiating with the Israelis between 1991 and 2000, when he said 90 percent of an agreement was reached in direct talks.

“Now we are in the third round. I did not calculate at that time how many rounds I had with the Israelis, more than 1,000 rounds,” he said.

Those direct talks — between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara — stalled in 2000 in a dispute over how much of the Golan Heights should go back to Syria.

Moualem’s visit is part of a thaw between Damascus and Paris since Syria helped find a political solution in Lebanon to end a standoff between the ruling coalition and an opposition alliance led by Hezbollah — a group backed by Syria and Iran.

France had halted high-level contacts with Damascus last year, accusing Syria of stoking tensions in Lebanon, its neighbor and a former French protectorate.

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