Page last updated at 19:18 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 20:18 UK

Olmert warns of Syria concessions

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert 21-05-2008
Mr Olmert is seeking a Syrian deal that eluded his predecessors

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has described peace talks with Syria as "exciting", but warned that they might involve "painful concessions".

"It's always better to talk than shoot," Mr Olmert said, though he did not say what the concessions might be.

Earlier, the two sides revealed that they had begun the talks - the first since 2000 - under Turkish mediation.

Previous negotiations collapsed over a possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in 1967.

Israel and Syria are still technically at war over the area.

New momentum

Mr Olmert's office on Wednesday said the two sides were talking "in good faith and openly".

The prime minister later told journalists that the "negotiations won't be easy".

He noted that previous Israeli leaders had been prepared to make "painful concessions" for peace with Syria.

Detailed Golan map

It was reported in April that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been mediating in talks between the two sides.

In a statement on Wednesday, Syria's foreign ministry confirmed that the two countries had "expressed their desire to conduct the talks in goodwill and decided to continue dialogue with seriousness to achieve comprehensive peace".

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Golan up to the armistice line of 1967.

Israel has refused to comment on the claim, although a spokesman for Mr Olmert said the current talks were being carried out with the failure of the previous ones in mind, and that the talks had recently gathered momentum.

The US and the EU have welcomed news of the negotiations, and both have praised Turkey's role as facilitator.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he hoped the two parties "will reach a peaceful solution".

Analysts suggest that, in return for any withdrawal, Israel would demand Syria sever its ties with Iran and the Hezbollah group in Lebanon.

However, they add that withdrawal from the Golan would not be popular with Israelis.

The reports of talks in April sparked outrage in the Israeli parliament, where several MPs said they would try to accelerate the passage of a bill requiring any withdrawal from the Golan to be backed by a referendum.

Mr Olmert is currently battling corruption allegations, and the BBC's Katya Adler in Jerusalem says the prime minister's critics believe the confirmation of peace talks may be an attempt to divert some attention from that.

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