Olmert wants more Syria talks during last months in power

Legislators of the opposition Likud party asked Israel's attorney-general Friday to examine whether interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the head of a transitional government has the authority to continue peace negotiations with Syria, reported dpa.

Likud legislator Yuval Steinitz said Olmert, by conducting talks with Syria as an outgoing premier, was "trampling the principles of democracy" and endangering "Israel's most vital interests" for the sake of his own personal record.

"This is contrary to the instructions of the attorney general. It is unprecedented in world history," he told Israel Radio.

The Likud petition comes after an Israeli newspaper reported earlier Friday that Olmert has sent a message to Syria, saying he wants to pick up the peace negotiations with Damascus now that it has become clear he will stay in power for a few more months.

Olmert asked Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul, in a meeting in Tel Aviv on Thursday, 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.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was elected leader of the centrist party on September 17 and asked by Israel's president to form a new government, but her efforts to build 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 at the head of a transitional government which will be in place until a new one is formed within 42 days of the elections.

That gives Olmert another four to five months and the outgoing premier vowed to the Israeli parliament earlier this week that during that period he will continue to run the country as usual.

Not only the Likud, but also members of the coalition have said Olmert lacks the legitimacy to make any crucial decision in the upcoming interim period.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the coalition Labour Party, said earlier this week that Olmert may continue negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria at their current pace, but lacks the legitimacy to sign agreements with any of them, although Science Minister Ghaleb Majadele, of the same party, said now of all times, negotiations with both Syria and the Palestinians should be expedited.

When peace needs to be made, it should not be postponed because of elections, he told Israel Radio.

"I don't believe that there is anyone on the Syrian side who truly thinks that a peace agreement can be made that will be accepted by the Israeli public and win the support of the Knesset when the government is in the twilight of its days and when the prime minister is to vacate his seat in a few months," Likud legislator Silvan Shalom also told the radio.

The reported US raid in Syria, he said, "proved clearly" the country was still supporting terrorism and "is still part of the axis of evil and that Syria is not exactly the country that is ripe at this time for a true peace process."

Steinitz said that behind closed doors American officials were "furious" that Israel had removed Syria from its international isolation by announcing, jointly with Damascus, 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. But a date for a fifth round had thus far not been set amid the political uncertainty in Israel.

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