Olmert: We're facing a historic agreement with Syria
Prime minister discusses resumed talks with Damascus during weekly cabinet meeting, says dialogue won't be held through media. 'We will hold the negotiations according to the current reality and not according to the situation 10 years ago,' he tells ministers
"Ever since the announcement was made, we have heard many speculations and interpretations," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the start of the meeting. "I would like to say at this time that we have no plans to hold negotiations through the media or by blowing slogans, but rather by using the required caution and responsibility.
"Israel has experience in holding negotiations, the prime minister claimed, defending the need for a certain level of secrecy. "In the past too, the public in Israel knew that negotiations were being held, but was unaware of its details.
"I can say that we are taking these negotiations seriously and are preparing for them rigorously. They will be held according to the current reality, not according to the situation 10 years ago; according to today's diplomatic sensitivities, and not according to what took place in the past. This is how negotiations were held in the past, both on the Palestinian level and on the Syrian level."
Following the cabinet meeting, while hosting minister in honor of Israel's 60th anniversary, Olmert said, "We are facing a historic agreement with Syria, which may remove the northern threat."
Barak: Syrians have different list of priorities
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he supports the talks with Syria, but believes Damascus has "a different list of priorities."
"The State of Israel made the right decision to continue holding talks with Syria. It would have been making a mistake had it put an end to the negotiations, Barak said.
"On the other hand," he added, "my impression is that the Syrians have a different list of priorities: Continuing Assad's rule, annulling the international tribunal probing the Hariri murder, and the desire to regain a key role in Lebanon, as well as get closer to the West and receive things from the United States and the free world."
The defense minister, who expressed his reservations regarding the overexposure of the renewed talks, added that "we must prepare ourselves for long negotiations. It's important to hold them from a position of strength and self-confidence."
He clarified that no direct negotiations were being held so far with the Syrians, and that therefore the remarks relating to the issue were preliminary.
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said during the meeting, "Talks with Syria – whether secret or open – hold a strategic importance for Israel, and I welcome them. The Turkish umbrella is important, but the American involvement is critical should an agreement be reached.
"It would be wrong to reach an agreement with Syria without the United States being the leading country carrying Israel's guarantees." He added that the first issues to be discussed during the talks should be the Hamas and Jihad headquarters in Damascus.
Majadele: Golan – Syrian land
Olmert's deputy, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, appeared reserved: "As long as (Syrian President Bashar) Assad does not free himself from the 'axis of evil' and is tied to Iran and Hizbullah – our talks with him do not legitimize him and only relieve him of his miseries, and that's a mistake.
"We have taken great steps towards peace, both for Assad and for Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas). All the ministers and prime ministers have already said what we are willing to give, but the other side won’t even recognize Israel," he added.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) called on the government to demand that the Syrians lease the Golan Heights to Israel for 25 years. "If they are serious, they must agree to this idea. If not, they aren't really serious."
Minister Raleb Majadele (Labor), the only Arab government member, declared that the Golan Heights was Syrian land. The negotiations, he said, were "a joint strategic interest" and could detach Syria from the Iranian camp.
"The negotiations between Israel and Syria are a joint strategic interest. Why do people have to claim that this is a spin aimed at freeing the prime minister from criminal investigations? The danger is greater when Syria is connected to Iran in the 'axis of evil'. These talks may remove it from there," he added.
Addressing the situation in Gaza, the prime minister said that "things are nearing a decisive point." He added that Israel "wants peace and security both in the short run and in the long run – and we will have to make decisions."
Regarding a truce with Hamas, Olmert noted that Israel was waiting for the Egyptian mediator, in order to hear the answers he received from the Palestinian factions for Israel's demands.
"If this result is not reached through Egyptian mediation, we will have to take other means. The government has nothing more important than securing its residents' safety. Both I and the defense officials are losing sleep over this issue. We must secure the safety of the south's residents."
Sheetrit made it clear that he would oppose any "capitulation agreement" with Hamas, which may also be interpreted as a "green light" for European countries. "The failure to break Hamas' resistance power today will put hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the range of missies. The IDF must continue operating day and night. This is the only way to stop the rocket threat on the southern communities."
Vice Premier Haim Ramon also said he would not support an agreement between Israel and Hamas if it is brought to the government's approval. "We have succeeded in isolating (Hamas) in the world, and the negotiations being held with them now are legitimizing future talks between them and any country."