JERUSALEM – Israelis on Thursday reacted skeptically to the announcement of a peace deal with Syria as its Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called on Syria to sever ties with Arab militants if it wants to cement the deal.
Livni wants Syria to cut ties with Iran and stop supporting violent groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Israel and Syria announced Wednesday that indirect peace talks had resumed after an eight-year break, but many Israelis appear to believe that embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert timed the news to divert attention from the corruption allegations that threaten to end his term in office.
Opinion polls showed Israelis remained wary of withdrawing from the strategic Golan Heights — even in return for peace with one of Israel's bitterest enemies.
The announcement came the same day an Israeli court lifted a gag order that had barred media from reporting details about the large sums of cash that police say Olmert illicitly received from an American Jewish businessman. It also came two days before Olmert was set to be questioned again by police.
Competing Israeli newspapers Yediot Ahronot and Maariv shared the same headline on Thursday: "Interrogation and Peace."
In a published interview Thursday, Olmert tried to focus attention on the resumption of talks after an eight-year breakdown. "The peace negotiations with Syria are more important than all the rumor and investigations," he told Yediot Ahronot.
Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday that the talks, which are indirect and mediated by Turkey, are moving ahead, with another round of discussions expected "in the near future."
Olmert assured French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that while negotiating with Syria, Israel intends to continue working toward peace with the Palestinians, "with neither coming at the expense of the other," according to a statement from the prime minister's office. The statement said Olmert "made it clear that the State of Israel aspires to reach peace with the Palestinians in the coming year."
In a poll published in Yediot Thursday, only 36 percent of the Israelis surveyed said the negotiations with Syria were meant to promote peace. Forty-nine percent said they believed Olmert was trying to draw attention away from the new police investigation.
The poll, carried out by the Dahaf Research Institute, questioned 500 respondents. The margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.
Olmert is suspected of illicitly receiving up to $500,000 (euro340,000) from American businessman Morris Talansky. Olmert denies wrongdoing and says the money was to fund political campaigns. But police are not ruling out bribery.
Olmert's popularity, low since he was widely seen to have bungled Israel's war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon two years ago, has taken a further drubbing in the past weeks because of the case. His current legal troubles mark the fifth police investigation into his affairs since he took power in 2006. He has never been charged or convicted, and one case was closed.
A withdrawal from the Golan Heights — Syria's key demand for peace — will be hard to sell in Israel, and it could be tough for a leader as unpopular as Olmert to pull it off.
In exchange for a pullback, Israel wants Syria to end its support for militants, curb its ties with Iran, and establish full diplomatic relations.
A Thursday report in the Syria Times, a government-run newspaper, said Syria has "good intentions" and a "strong desire" for peace but is skeptical about Israel's seriousness. It said Damascus would not "under any circumstances" bargain on the full return of the Golan Heights.
Israel captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war, and many Israelis see it as a valuable buffer against attack. Today the Golan Heights are home to 18,000 Israelis who run thriving wine and tourism industries. Olmert himself vacationed there last month.
According to the poll, only 19 percent of Israelis are willing to cede the entire Golan Heights, down from 32 percent a month ago.
"Israelis want peace and security, but they have seen that haphazard efforts in the past have yielded dangerous results," said Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N.
Gold mentioned Israel's withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from the Gaza Strip in 2005, saying both had eventually resulted in more violence.
"The burden of proof will be on the Israeli government to convince the Israeli public that this time withdrawal will not lead to more conflict but will lead to stability and peace," he said.
Israel and Syria are bitter enemies whose attempts at reaching peace have failed in the past. The last round of talks collapsed in 2000 because of a disagreement over a narrow strip of land along the Sea of Galilee that Israel wanted to keep to preserve its water rights.
The nations have fought three wars, their forces have clashed in Lebanon, and more recently, Syria has given support to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups.
But no matter what Olmert does to try to end the hostilities between the longtime foes, Israelis won't take him seriously, most Israeli commentators seem to agree.
"It does not matter what Olmert does in the months he has left in office," wrote Yossi Verter in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "Everything will be considered spin. That is his fate."