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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 November, 2004, 15:09 GMT
Israel president backs Syria talks
Israeli President Moshe Katsav
Mr Katsav enjoys some support but no political power
Israel's figurehead president has urged the country's leaders to take up a Syrian offer to renew peace talks.

Moshe Katsav rejected Israeli official objections which said Syria's overture transmitted via UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen was insignificant.

"In my opinion it is important and worthwhile to thoroughly check out the intentions of (Syrian President) Assad," he told the Maariv daily.

Mr Assad said he was willing to resume talks with Israel without conditions.

It is not the first time Damascus has said it is ready to talk without preconditions - though Syria has always insisted that talks over the strategic Golan Heights should resume from the point they broke off four years ago.

We always declared our willingness for peace talks with any Arab leader... I think this should be the case with Syria's president
Israeli President Moshe Katsav
Israeli-Syrian talks collapsed in 2000 after a disagreement about who would control the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

"We have always declared our willingness to conduct peace talks with any Arab leader who wants to come and negotiate with us," Mr Katsav said.

"I think this should be the case with the Syrian president."

Mr Katsav's role is ceremonial, but correspondents say he enjoys widespread popular support for his centrist political positions.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said if Syria shut down Palestinian militant organisations active there, "I will be the first to call for the immediate resumption of negotiations".

'Outstretched hand'

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war and subsequently annexed them.

Mr Roed-Larsen said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad conveyed the Syrian overture after a meeting on Wednesday.

"President Assad had reiterated to me today that he has an outstretched hand to his Israeli counterpart, that he is willing to go to the table without conditions," he said.

Syria's information minister later said his government's stance on renewing peace talks with Israel had not changed.

"Syria's known, declared and permanent position is that Syria is ready to resume negotiations from the point they broke off," Mahdi Dakhlallah said in Damascus.

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