updated 12/18/2008 12:58:56 PM ET 2008-12-18T17:58:56

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday that it is possible to negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Syria.

Olmert said that the indirect Israel-Syria talks mediated by Turkey over the past several months can lead to direct negotiations. He told a conference of the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, "A peace treaty with Syria can be achieved."

Olmert also called for efforts for peace with the Palestinians, while warning that Iran threatens the region, not just Israel.

Israel and Syria are bitter enemies. Peace talks broke down in 2000.

Return of the Golan Heights
Syria demands return of the Golan Heights, a strategic territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel insists on full peace in return. The peace talks ended eight years ago with the two sides near agreement but unable to bridge the final gaps. The indirect talks began earlier this year.

Olmert said a peace treaty would break the ties between Syria and Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. "Syria does not have to be part of the axis of evil," he said. "Syria wants to reconnect with the West and the United States. Removing Syria from the axis of evil is an Israeli interest."

Olmert could not guarantee success in peace talks. He said, "How will we know if we don't try? How can we try if we are not prepared to take any risks?"

Olmert plans to travel to Turkey next week for meetings where the talks with Syria are likely to be discussed.

'Painful concessions'
Olmert called for serious negotiations toward a peace treaty with the Palestinians, though that would require "painful concessions."

The Likud Party leads in polls ahead of Feb. 10 elections, and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said that he would concentrate on economic cooperation instead of a peace treaty. He has also opposed trading the Golan Heights for peace with Syria.

Olmert warned, "An Israeli government that does not show flexibility, political initiative and readiness for significant and painful compromises to win peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians is liable to be pushed into a corner, bring on itself harsh international criticism that would be harmful from the security and economic points of view."

The Israeli leader warned that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose a serious threat. Iran has said its nuclear program is peaceful, but Israel is convinced that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons.

"The Iranian threat is not against Israel alone, but also against the moderate regimes in the region and the whole world," he said. "Israel cannot accept a nuclear Iran."

In a reference to the possibility of military action, Olmert said, "Israel has the ability to defend itself." He added, "The international community must not take any option off the table."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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