JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel’s prime minister hopes to hold another round of peace talks with Syria even though elections are pending and he has only a few months remaining in office, Israeli officials said Friday.
Israel and Syria have been holding indirect talks through Turkish mediators, but the contacts have been suspended for months because of the political upheaval in Israel.
Olmert, who announced he would step down to face corruption allegations, remains the caretaker leader of a temporary government until after national elections on Feb. 10. His opponents say he should freeze negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians in the meantime, but Olmert says he will press ahead.
Olmert “sees importance in the continuation of the dialogue and the continuation of the talks,” said his spokesman, Mark Regev.
Another official in Olmert’s office said Olmert hoped to have Turkey arrange another round of talks with the Syrians soon. It would be the fifth between the sides.
Olmert is aware of the restrictions of his caretaker role and is not planning to reach agreements with the Syrians, the official said. Instead, he hopes to receive answers about Syria’s willingness to distance itself from its allies in Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, a key Israeli demand.
In turn, he said, the Syrians were expected to raise the subject of final borders.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not officially made public.
Syria hopes to win back the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau it lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel later annexed the territory, a move that has not been recognized internationally. An earlier round of peace talks in the late 1990s foundered over disagreements about the extent of an Israeli withdrawal.
Syrian officials were not available for comment Friday. But the Syrians have indicated they might not agree to resume talks with an Israeli prime minister who has almost no clout.
“This process cannot be resumed before the political crisis in Israel is solved,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told a news conference in London on Monday, following talks with his British counterpart.
In Israel, Olmert’s critics said he was overstepping his authority as a caretaker prime minister.
“A transition government perhaps has legal standing, but it certainly does not have the public and moral standing to make great changes and commit the people and the state to things that affect the coming generations,” lawmaker Reuven Rivlin of the hardline Likud Party told Army Radio.
The February elections will pit Olmert’s moderate foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, against Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has said he will not cede the Golan Heights, a stance that would make a peace deal with Syria impossible.
Livni and Netanyahu are currently tied in the polls.