Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's dramatic announcement that he is negotiating a peace deal with Syria was greeted Thursday with overwhelming skepticism in Israel.
Many Israelis appear to believe the embattled leader made the declaration to divert attention from the corruption allegations that threaten to end his term in office, and opinion polls showed Israelis remained wary of withdrawing from the strategic Golan Heights — even in return for peace with one of Israel's most bitter enemies.
The announcement that peace talks had resumed eight years after they broke down came on the same day a court-issued gag order on the new Olmert case was lifted, allowing the publication of new details of the charges that Olmert took money in cash from a Jewish-American 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."
Focusing attention on historic talks
In a published interview Thursday, Olmert tried to focus attention on the historic talks. "The peace negotiations with Syria are more important than all the rumor and investigations," he told the Yediot Ahronot daily.
Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said Thursday that talks, which are indirect and mediated by Turkey, are moving ahead, with another round of discussions "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," said 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 said the negotiations with Syria are meant to promote peace, while 49 percent of Israelis said they believe Olmert is trying to draw attention away from the new police investigation.
The poll, carried out by the Dahaf Institute, questioned 500 respondents and a margin of error was 4.5 percentage points.
Olmert is suspected of illicitly receiving up to $500,000 from American businessman Morris Talansky. Olmert denies wrongdoing and says the money was to fund political campaigns. But police are not ruling out bribery.
Decline in popularity
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 convicted.
A withdrawal from the Golan Heights — Syria's key demand for peace — will be hard to sell in Israel, and it is highly unlikely a leader as unpopular as Olmert will be able to pull it off.
The strategic plateau was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War and is considered 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.
A Thursday report in the government-run Syria Times 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 Golan Heights' full return.
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 in order 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.
The sides' demands in any peace deal are well-known. Syria wants a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, and Israel wants Syria to end its support for militants, curb its ties with Iran, and establish full diplomatic relations.
But that isn't likely to happen on Olmert's watch, 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."