Olmert Intends to Resume Talks with Syria

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to restart indirect negotiations with Syria, despite his status as the caretaker of a transitional government.

According to a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Olmert plans to initiate talks between his office and his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week.

In a meeting with Olmert Tuesday, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, fresh from a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, relayed Assad's message that he was "very serious" about continuing negotiations with Israel.

Moeller said Assad would be willing to conduct direct talks with Olmert before the end of U.S. President George Bush's term if Israel would agree to cede the Golan Heights, one of six preconditions Assad presented to Erdogan in September.

While Olmert didn't mention his intention to restart talks with Syria during his address at the opening of the Knesset's winter session, he told legislators that "the interests of the country do not go into deep-freeze" and "the feeling of pre-election freeze is misleading."

"There are decisions to be made and a country to be run," Olmert said. "The decisions will be made and the country will be run," he warned.

Livni Left Out of the Loop

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who replaced Olmert as head of the Kadima party, wasn't informed of his intentions. Livni also criticized Syria's role in smuggling arms to Lebanese-based Hezbollah terrorists.

"International pressure must be brought to bear on Syria to stop this phenomenon," Livni reportedly told Turkey's defense minister.

Meanwhile, Likud Knesset members submitted a petition to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz asking him to determine if Olmert has the authority to resume negotiations with the Syrians.

No 'Moral or Legal' Authority

"Olmert has no authority for such a move, and he has no legal right at the end of this government's reign to make unacceptable commitments on Israel's behalf," said Likud MK Limor Livnat, who delivered the petition to the attorney general.

"Olmert does not have the moral or legal authority to make any commitments on behalf of the State of Israel," MK Gilad Erdan said. "Tzipi Livni's silence in regard to Olmert's activity shows her willingness to give up the Golan Heights. As usual, she keeps quiet and fails to firmly insist that this move is immoral," he said.

"Olmert's conduct in regard to the negotiations with Syria is harming the principles of democracy and the State of Israel's most vital interests," said Likud MK Yuval Steinitz.

Limitations of an Interim Government

Despite Olmert's insistence on reopening talks with Syria, he is legally limited as head of a transitional government.

Following Olmert's resignation in September, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz issued a letter to Cabinet ministers reminding them they are now part of an interim government.

"Given the temporary nature of an interim government that lacks the confidence of the Knesset, the government and ministers in such an interim government must demonstrate restraint regarding decision-making on non-routine issues requiring immediate attention during this interim period," the attorney general wrote.

Sources: Haaretz, YNet news

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