Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, confirmed on Wednesday night that his country and Syria have been in contact for a year now.

 

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Al Jazeera speaks to residents of the Golan Heights

"We are ready to make substantial concessions to Syria that will be quite painful," he told a gathering in Tel Aviv.

 

"The negotiations are going to take a long time.

 

"It will not be easy, and we have no illusions. I am convinced that the possibility of success is greater than the risk" involved."

 

His remarks were seen as a reference to the Golan Heights, the Israeli-annexed Syrian territory which was the main sticking point in past negotiations.

Israeli demands

 

Olmert's cabinet colleague Ehud Barak said peace with Syria could be achieved only from a position of strength and self-confidence.
 
As the Israeli prime minister in 2000, Barak, currently the defence minister, took part in US-hosted talks with Syria that failed over the Golan issue.
 

For her part, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, set clear demands on Thursday for resumption of peace talks with Damascus.

 

She said that Syria must stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.

 

She also wants Damascus to cut its ties with Iran.

 

A poll found 70 per cent of Israelis opposed
giving back the Golan Heights to Syria
Livni said Israel wanted to live in peace with its neighbours, but Syria needed to "distance itself completely" from "problematic ties" with Iran.

 

She said Syria must also stop "supporting terror, Hezbollah, Hamas", groups backed by Iran. 

 

Responding to Livni's conditions, Mohsen Bilal, Syria's information minister, said Syria has a natural right to take back the Golan Heights.

 

"We hope that the Israeli government is serious this time," he told Al Jazeera.

 

"The Israelis want a lot of conditions [in return for giving back the Golan] and we reject [them].

 

"The Golan Heights are a Syrian right. If they would like to achieve comprehensive peace, they have to withdraw to the pre-1967 border."

 

Complex process

 

The US, in its initial public reaction to the Israeli-Syrian contacts, said it does "not object" to talks, but repeated its criticism of Syria's "support of terrorism".

 

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Olmert, who revealed the discussions with Syria two days before he faces a police interrogation over bribery allegations that he has rejected, said the peace track would be long and complex.

 

But a television poll found 70 per cent of Israelis opposed giving back the Golan Heights to Syria, and a majority also believed Olmert was using the talks to distract from the criminal investigation that could force him from office.

 

Yossi Verter, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, said: "Everyone knows that Olmert wants to end his term on a diplomatic note, not a criminal one. The question is, what will come first - an indictment or a peace treaty."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies