Indirect Israeli-Syrian talks reportedly head into new round but U.S. voices no involvement

By Xinhua,

Jerusalem : Israel and Syria are reportedly planning to hold their new round of indirect peace talks in Turkey in mid-September, but Washington has indicated that it will not get involved in it.

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Israeli media on Saturday quoted the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat as reporting that the fifth round of indirect talks between Israel and Syria would be held in Turkey’s largest city Istanbul in about two weeks.

Citing a top European official who arrived in Israel on Friday, the newspaper also said that the coming Israeli-Syrian talks would be supervised by a senior U.S. official.

An unnamed Israeli source also quoted by the newspaper as confirming that the European official came to Israel on Friday in order to brief Israeli officials on the results of a Thursday four-way summit of leaders of Syria, France, Turkey and Qatar.

The European official raised the possibility that the fifth round of peace talks between Israel and Syria would be held on Sept. 18, said the Israeli source.

However, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood told a press briefing in Washington that he had no knowledge of rumored plans to send Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch to the talks, adding “I haven’t heard anything about that at all.”

Asked whether the U.S. would get more involved in the talks now, following Thursday’s four-way summit in Damascus that included three Washington’s strategic allies of France, Turkey and Qatar, Wood said what we want to see out of the meeting is for it to playa much more productive role in the region.

“It hasn’t until now. We’d like to see it not meddle in the affairs of the sovereign government of Lebanon,” he said, adding that if Syria is truly interested in a relationship with Israel, it should say that it is and it should work toward an eventual peace with Israel.

Meanwhile, a U.S. embassy official in Israel also said on Saturday night that the United States is not sending an envoy to take part in the fifth round of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

“There are no plans to send a U.S. envoy to the talks,” Israelidaily The Jerusalem Post quoted the official as saying.

Observers held that the U.S. indication of not getting involved in the talks suggests that it remains hard for the Israeli-Syrian peace talks to achieve significant progress.

But The Jerusalem Post said that since Israel and Syria started indirect peace talks in May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said on a number of occasions that serious steps could only be taken with direct U.S. involvement.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also wants to get the U.S. involved in the peace talks in a bid to persuade Assad to advance to direct talks.

On July 10, Olmert said during a meeting with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini that he can persuade U.S. President George W. Bush to sponsor the talks.

However, Washington’s position has been that Syria has not altered its behavior to an extent that would warrant re-engagement with Damascus.

Both Israel and Syria announced in mid-May that they had started peace talks under the auspices of Turkey.

The key issue between the two neighbors are the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day-War and annexed in 1981, a move that was not recognized by the international community.

In late July, Israel and Syria concluded their 4th round of indirect peace talks in Turkey. According to a statement issued by the Turkish Prime Minister’s office, the parties have made progress during the talks which were held “in a productive and very positive way.”

“The parties have affirmed their joint will to hold another round of talks. They set a date for the fifth round,” the statement added.

However, Assad said on Thursday that the fifth round of indirect peace talks, which should take place on Wednesday and could pave the way for direct talks, was postponed due to the resignation of chief Israeli negotiator Yoram Turbowitz.

The president also said Syria has put forward six points on peacemaking with Israel and has handed to the Turkish side and awaits Israel’s response, adding that “in the event that Israel responds positively, we will move into direct negotiation.”

Despite the fact that both Israel and Syria want to continue the talks, the difference over the Golan Heights remains and overshadows the prospect of the talks.

Assad said Syria and Israel had separately put forward ideas on the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and Israel’s reaction to the issue will be crucial in the peace talks.

“We are awaiting the Israeli elections,” the president said. “We want…to ensure that the next Israeli prime minister would continue the same trend adopted by Olmert to withdraw completely from occupied territories in order to achieve peace.”

Israel, however, is insisting that Syria should cut ties with its foes, including Iran, radical Palestinian groups and Lebanese Hezbollah group — a position backed by the United States.