A surprise announcement by Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter (Kadima) on Monday that he was in favor of a withdrawing from the Golan Heights in exchange for true peace with Syria caused waves across the political spectrum, and triggered a backlash in his own party.
Syria is the "single most aggressive member of the axis of evil," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday, ruling out a resumption of negotiations with Damascus at this time.
"I am the last person who will say I want to negotiate with Syria," Olmert said in unusually harsh comments.
The prime minister had been touring communities in the north, where he noted that many of the rockets that hit the north originated in Syria.
"When Syria stops supporting terrorism, when it stops giving missiles to terror organizations, then we will be happy to negotiate with them," said Olmert.
In the morning, Dichter had said that Israel had paid similar territorial concessions in the past with Jordan and Egypt.
"Any diplomatic initiative is preferred over war, whether in Syria or Lebanon," Dichter said. "Regarding Lebanon, conditions are even more conducive than they are with Syria. Lebanon can today begin talks with Israel without the Syrians."
Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security agency, said that territorial concessions meant a return to the internationally recognized border, which existed prior to the capture of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War.
A source in the prime minister's office said that the comments were not made with Olmert's approval and called them a "surprise." Olmert, who heard about the comments while he was already in the north, urged that people do "not to get carried away with any false hopes."
"We are not going into any adventure when they side with terror," Olmert said referring to Syria. "We will enter negotiations until certain steps are taken which could be the basis for any negotiations."
Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Monday that the time was not right to resume negotiations with Syria, arguing that Israel was too busy trying to deal with Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Peres said he believes it's unlikely Syrian President Bashar Assad was even contemplating a return to negotiations. "The Syrians, if they are serious (about peace talks), should come and say 'we are interested in holding negotiations,'" Peres said. "I don't see Assad doing this."
Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said there was "no significance" to talk of peace with Israel as long as it does not withdraw from all territory in conquered in 1967. He stressed that Syria would accept the Arab peace initiative only after an independent Palestinian state is established with Jerusalem as its capital.
After Dichter made the comments early Monday morning, several opposition MKs speculated that he was testing the waters for Olmert. "If this is the direction the prime minister's office is heading in, wellâ€¦ the government will disintegrate faster than anyone had expected," said one Likud MK.
MK Effi Eitam (NU/NRP), a Golan resident, who argued that "withdrawing from the Golan Heights would only endanger the security of Israel. Syria associates itself with the evil axis of Hizbullah and Iran, and its goal is to destroy Israel," Eitam said, and declared that Syria "cannot be a partner for discussion."
Israel Beitenu, which has strongly argued against territorial concessions since the March elections also slammed Dichter's statement. "This statement represents a cynical attempt to divert the public agenda from the burning issues," said Israel Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman. "The willingness for concessions itself attests to the ministers' irresponsibility."
The only MKs to voice support for Dichter were those from Meretz and the Arab Parties.
MK Taleb a-Sanaa (UAL) called Dichter the "only sane voice during a time of insanity of wars and Meretz MKs Ran Cohen and Zahava Gal-On called for the government to heed Dichter's remarks.
"We must not sit and wait for the next war. A [peace] agreement in exchange for giving back the Golan would disconnect Syria from Iran and disarm Hizbullah," said Cohen.