Olmert wants to up talks with Syria during last months in power

Israeli Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has sent a message to Syria, saying he wants to step up peace negotiations with Damascus now that it has become clear he will stay in power for a few more months, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Olmert asked Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul in a meeting in Tel Aviv to convey the message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Yediot Ahronot reported.

Olmert resigned last month from the premiership and the leadership of his ruling Kadima party to fight corruption allegations, reported dpa.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was elected as the new leader of the centrist party in a September 17 primary and asked by Israel's president to form a new government, but her efforts to form a coalition have failed.

New elections in Israel will now be held on February 10.

Olmert, whose resignation under Israeli law automatically meant that of his cabinet as well, will now continue to rule the country at the head of a transitional government which will be in place until a new one is formed within 42 days after the elections.

That gives Olmert another four to five months.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, however, said earlier this week that Olmert, as the head of a transitional government, may continue negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria at their current pace, but lacks the legitimacy to sign agreements with any of them.

Israel Radio also quoted a "senior official in Jerusalem" as saying on condition of anonymity that Olmert must consult his cabinet before resuming any negotiations.

The official also added his voice to those of critics who say Olmert cannot reach agreements with anyone in the upcoming interim period.

Olmert, for his part, vowed to the Israeli parliament earlier this week that he will continue to run the country as usual until a new government is in place.

Israel and Syria announced in a surprise move last spring that they had revived indirect peace talks for the first time since they last broke off in 2000.

The indirect talks are held under Turkish mediation between senior aides to Olmert and Assad.

Thus far, four rounds have taken place, all of them in Turkey and the last one in late July.

Olmert has called for direct talks, but Assad has said the conditions are not yet ripe for such talks and has posed certain preconditions.

Syria wants a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Damascus in the 1967 Middle East war.

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