Last update - 00:42 23/12/2008     
      Assad: Direct peace talks with Israel possible and will happen  
      By Haaretz Service and The Associated Press  

      Syrian President Bashar Assad said Monday he believes direct peace talks 
with Israel are possible and that they will eventually take place. 

      "It's natural that we would move, at a later stage, to direct 
negotiations. We cannot achieve peace through indirect talks only," Assad said, 
speaking at a joint press conference with visiting Croatian counterpart Stipe 

      The comments reflect a softer stance taken by the Syrian leader, who only 
recently rebuked Israel by claiming it is not genuine in its professed desire 
for peace with its Arab neighbors. 
      Assad's comments came as Olmert was in Turkey for talks with officials 
there that were expected to focus among other things on Turkish-mediated 
negotiations with Syria. 

      After meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Monday, Olmert 
reiterated his assertion that, "Peace with Syria is achievable." 

      Four rounds of indirect Syrian-Israeli talks have been held this year 
through Turkish mediators, though no breakthroughs were made. The talks were 
suspended after outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would step 

      Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, declared on Monday that 
Israel will not cede the Golan Heights, a key Syrian demand, if he is elected 
prime minister in February's general election. 

      "The government of Israel under Likud's leadership will make sure that we 
stay in the Golan, and will keep it for the state's security," said Netanyahu, 
the Likud chairman. He made the comments while on a tour of the strategic 

      No new date for the Syria-Israel talks has been set, and Assad didn't say 
Monday when the indirect talks would resume. They are not expected to go on 
until after the election that would determine Olmert's successor. 

      The Syrian president compared the peace process to the construction of a 
building, and said Syria and Israel are now laying the foundations for peace 
through the Turkey-mediated indirect talks. 

      "We should first lay solid foundations and then construct the building, 
and not vice versa," he said. "If the bases are successful, then direct 
negotiations will be successful." 

      Olmert said last week it's possible to negotiate a peace treaty between 
Israel and Syria. 

      Damascus has proposed that Turkish-mediated talks with Israel resume 
"officially,' perhaps even directly, after Barack Obama assumes the U.S. 
presidency and a new government is elected in Israel, according to a reporter 
from the Qatari paper Al-Watan, in Damascus. 

      Arab sources told the paper that until that time, Syria is not interested 
in continuing talks with Israel. 

      Syria and Israel are bitter foes. They held direct talks in the late 
1990s and early 2000 but negotiations broke down over the extent of an Israeli 
withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic territory captured by Israel in 
the 1967 Six Day War. 

      Syria insists on the complete return of the Golan Heights, while Israel 
wants to keep a strip of land around the Sea of Galilee. 



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