Olmert rejects Syrian calls for peace talks

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The Independent Online

Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister, has rejected an appeal from President Bashar Assad to resume peace talks with Syria.

He suggested Mr Assad's overture was prompted by a desire to fend off international sanctions for Damascus's alleged complicity in the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and its support for radical forces in the Middle East.

"We need to ask ourselves," Mr Olmert told his cabinet yesterday, "why, precisely at this moment, Assad is asking to renew negotiations. The considerations that motivate Assad are not necessarily the considerations that motivate us."

His reaction came after President George Bush rejected a call from the Iraq Study Group to engage with Iran and Syria on broader Middle East issues.

President Assad called on Mr Olmert to heed his calls for negotiations, in an interview with the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica.

Amir Peretz, Israel's Defence Minister, called for an "urgent debate" to weigh the possibility of severing Syria's ties with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas. But Mr Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said: "The Syrian government has shown, in actions rather than words, it has no interest in real negotiations."

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