PM: 'It's better to talk than to shoot'

Olmert says chances of Syria-Israel negotiations succeeding are greater than the risks involved.

Olmert smiles 88 (photo credit: )
Olmert smiles 88
(photo credit: )
Israel and Syria understand a future peace agreement will include a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, as well as Syria's distancing itself from Iran and an end to its "aiding and abetting" Hamas and Hizbullah, Turkish sources told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday night. It was also clear that an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights would be gradual, in stages spread over a number of years, so both sides could test the agreement, according to the sources. The Turkish sources' comments followed dramatic surprise announcements made simultaneously in Jerusalem and Damascus regarding the beginning of indirect negotiations with the Syrians under Turkey's auspices. Olmert said Wednesday night that he realized the indirect peace negotiations with Syria - which were announced earlier in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara simultaneously - would be painful. "I have no illusions: Negotiations will not be easy, it will not be simple and it is possible that it will take a long time and may eventually involve difficult concessions," he said at an educational conference in Tel Aviv. "At the same time, after weighing all the relevant data and hearing the opinions of all Israel's security and intelligence bodies, I reached the conclusion that the chances in this case outweighed the risks, and with this hope, today we embark on this path." Olmert explained that the announcement of the indirect talks constituted the end of a year-long phase "during which we sought to establish a track that would allow for the existence of peace talks with Syria. "The renewal of negotiations with Syria, after eight years of stagnation, is certainly an exciting topic, but beyond this it is a national obligation that must be exhausted," he said. Olmert said the eight years during which the talks with Syria were frozen had not improved Israel's security situation in the North, "which still serves as our primary source of concern for regional deterioration. In such a situation, it is always better to talk than to shoot, and I am pleased that both sides decided to do so." Although the prime minister did not address charges heard throughout the day that the announcement was intended to divert attention from his investigation in the Talansky affair, sources in his office dismissed these claims as "utter nonsense." "These talks have been going on since last February," the sources said. "The prime minister discussed the Syrian track during interviews he gave before Pessah." The Turkish sources said the announcement's timing was linked to the fact that word of the indirect talks had already leaked out. He said it was not clear how or whether the possibility that Olmert might need to step down would impact the negotiations. Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman returned Wednesday evening from Istanbul, where since Monday they had been holding talks through a Turkish intermediary - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leading foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu - with a high-level Syrian delegation. According to the Turkish sources, Turbowicz and Turgeman will return to Turkey in two weeks for another round of indirect talks. The sources said that although Turkey had been carrying messages between Damascus and Jerusalem for more than a year, this was the first time the Israeli and Syrian teams had been in Turkey at the same time, with an official shuttling directly between them. The sources said that if the talks went well, the two sides would then meet face-to-face. The Turkish sources said that when the indirect talks had begun, it was agreed that during the preparatory period, they would be confidential. The sources said that although the existence of the talks had now been formally acknowledged by all parties involved, "the subjects being discussed from now on will not be publicized." The sources said Turkey believed that the announcement of the mutual engagement alone would have a positive impact on the region, since if Hizbullah understood that Syria and Israel were even indirectly engaged, the Islamist group might be less likely to do anything bellicose that could anger its Syrian sponsors. The dramatic developments began around noon, when similar announcements were released in Jerusalem, Damascus and Ankara about the existence of the talks. "Syria and Israel have started indirect peace talks, under the auspices of Turkey. The two sides stated their intention to conduct these talks in good faith and with an open mind. They decided to pursue the dialogue between them in a serious and continuous way, to achieve the goal of comprehensive peace in accordance with the Madrid Conference terms of reference for peace," the announcement released by the Prime Minister's Office read. The statement also thanked Turkey and Erdogan for their role in the process and their "hospitality." Shortly after the announcements, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria had received commitments for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights up to the June 4, 1967 lines. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office, however, denied this, saying that all that had been decided was to start the negotiations in good faith. The announcement of the talks came after months of reports of unofficial messages going back and forth from Jerusalem to Damascus through Turkey. The indirect talks started in February 2007, when Olmert visited Turkey and in a two-and-a-half-hour private conversation with Erdogan agreed that Turkey would start mediating between Israel and Syria with the goal of beginning peace negotiations. Olmert placed responsibility for the Syrian dossier in the hands of Turbowicz and Turgeman, who traveled to Turkey a number of times over the last year and held talks with Turkish officials. In an interview with Newsweek last week, the prime minister said Israel was examining the possibility of peace with Damascus, even though Jerusalem was concerned over Syria's role in the region. "We are very unhappy with the continued intensive involvement of Syria in the affairs of Lebanon and the lack of a democratic process in electing a new president in Lebanon. We are also unhappy with the continued links between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas," he said. Israeli and Turkish sources said the US had been kept abreast of the talks since the very beginning and done nothing to stop them. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, when asked about the talks Wednesday, said, "This decision was undertaken by Israel. We were not surprised by it, and we do not object to it." The US has let it be known, however, that it is skeptical that the talks will alter Syria's negative behavior in the region. Last week, in an interview with the Post and other Israeli journalists in the Oval Office before his trip to the region, US President George W. Bush said he had never sought to prevent Israel from negotiating with Damascus. But he also highlighted his own objections to American-Syrian dialogue and warned of the threat inherent in the Iranian-Syrian alliance. Meanwhile, opposition MKs lashed out at Olmert for opening talks with Syria over the Golan Heights even as he faced a criminal investigation. "No one will defend us apart from ourselves," Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu declared at the opening of the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on Wednesday night. "History won't give the Jewish people a second chance."