Olmert Announces Tough Concessions Ahead in Talks with Syria

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israelis Wednesday night talks with Syria could mean "concessions which will not be simple." He did not elaborate.

Hana Levi Julian , | updated: 10:54 PM

Syrian and Israel flags
Syrian and Israel flags
Israel News Photo: (file photo)

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday night that more tough concessions may be in store for the Israeli public, this time due to negotiations with Syria, which are due to begin within the next two weeks.

Olmert said Wednesday night in a speech at an education event in Tel Aviv that the resumption of negotiations with Damascus after an eight-year hiatus was "exciting, but more importantly, it is a national duty which we must exploit to the fullest."

He observed that the northern border is currently the major potential flashpoint for a future conflict, and said, "It is always better to talk, than shoot!"

Olmert said his predecessors in the Prime Minister's Office were "willing to make far-reaching concessions to achieve peace with Syria." Although he acknowledged there were no guarantees, he said, "I have reached the conclusion that the chance in this case is greater than the risk and with this hope we have set forth on our way."

He added that the talks could lead to "concessions which will not be simple" but did not elaborate further.

Mayors of communities in the Golan Heights held an emergency meeting following the announcement. The head of the Golan Regional Council, Eli Malka, commented, "We will not let a Prime Minister who is motivated by foreign considerations to hand over a stretch of land to the Axis of Evil and endanger our very existence."

Talks in 2 Weeks, Syria Begins With False Claims
Officials confirmed earlier in the day that Israel and Syria will begin indirect talks brokered by Turkey in two weeks.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying the two sides declared their intention "to conduct the talks without prejudice and with openness… to conduct the dialogue in a serious and continuous manner with the aim of reaching a comprehensive peace."

Almost immediately, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem claimed that Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Golan Heights, back to the June 4th,1967 border.

Shortly afterwards, officials in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office denied the claim, saying "Syria knows exactly what Israel demands of it, and Israel knows what Syria expects it to do."

Knesset Bill to Require 2/3 Majority to Approve Ceding Golan
Meanwhile, National Union/National Religious Party Knesset Member Eliyahu Gabbai announced that he is rushing a bill that will require a two-thirds majority in the Knesset before any Israeli leader could hand over any part of the Golan Heights. The bill had already been signed by 57 Knesset Members by late afternoon.

Likud lawmakers accused Olmert of carrying out "a cynical and transparent stunt in order to deflect attention from his personal problems." In a statement released to the media, Likud said the Prime Minister "has no moral and public mandate to hand over the Golan and bring the Syrians back to the Sea of Galilee."

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the news from the Middle East. In a statement issued at the UN headquarters in New York, Ban said that he "praises President [Bashar] Assad and Prime Minister Olmert for taking this important step, and thanks Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan for his efforts."

Legal Forum Moves to Block Talks During Investigations
The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel demanded that the Prime Minister cease all diplomatic contact with Syria regarding the Golan Heights while the investigation against him in the matter of illegal cash payments continues.

In an urgent letter to Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz, the Forum's legal adviser, attorney Yitzchak Bam, claimed that the timing of the announcement was "no coincidence at all" and asked Mazuz to direct Olmert to stop the negotiations.

"There is a deep concern that the purported advance in the diplomatic talks was intended to divert the public's attention from the Prime Minister's new criminal entanglement," Bam wrote. He contended that the Prime Minister was caught in a conflict of interest, "between his public responsibility as Prime Minister and his personal interest to fill the public agenda with matters that will push the corruption and investigations to the sidelines."

MK Orlev: Situation Gravely Damages Israel
National Union/National Religious Party Knesset Member Zevulun Orlev told Arutz Sheva that "without a doubt" negotiations with Syria "are causing Israel grave damage, because in order to save his skin [Olmert] is prepared to make far-reaching diplomatic concessions."

Orlev predicted that a "diplomatic breakthrough" would soon be announced on the Judea and Samaria front as well, for the same reason. The practical step which should be taken now, he added, is to send Turkey a clear message that the current negotiations are being conducted with a "political lame duck."

Gil Ronen contributed to this report.