Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner Thursday that both sides know what they need to do for peace and insisted that Israel had not made any prior commitments to the Syrians. "I told them if you want to talk come and talk. The Syrians know what we want and we know what they want," Olmert told Kouchner.
Olmert told Kouchner that the talks with Syria would not detract from peace efforts on the Palestinian front, saying that "Israel intends to hold parallel peace talks [with the Palestinian Authority and Syria] without having one set of talks take precedence over the other."
However, Israeli officials feel that there is a better chance of reaching an agreement with the Syrians than with the Palestinians, and a Syrian agreement has a better chance of being implemented.
A senior official in the Prime Minister's Bureau said that "the Syrians are serious and their intentions appear to be sincere. It is clear that if we reach an agreement it will be possible to implement it."
The sources say it should be easier to reach a deal with the Syrians because the issues on the Syrian front are only territorial, while those relating to the Palestinians concern a number of sensitive matters including land.
In addition, because President Bashar Assad has full control over Syria, an agreement with him will be honored and implemented, Israeli officials say.
The talks on both the Syrian and Palestinian fronts will continue for now, with the Palestinian negotiations in the hands of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The talks with the Syrians will be handled by the prime minister's bureau.
Olmert, Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak presented a unified front Thursday regarding Israel's expectations from Syria.
Livni said Syria must distance itself from Tehran and cut ties to Iranian-backed groups like Hezbollah and Hamas if it wants to make peace with Israel.
"Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbors, but Syria also needs to understand that it needs full renunciation of supporting terror - Hezbollah, Hamas and of course Iran," Livni said. She called Syria's ties with Iran "problematic," referring to the Israeli accusations that the Islamic republic sponsors Hamas and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
"The Syrians also need to understand that ... they must distance themselves completely from their ... problematic ties with Iran," Livni said before the start of a meeting with Kouchner.
Barak discussed the talks in public for the first time Thursday, tempering high hopes by saying that the road to peace is long.
"The Syrians know that concessions are a two-way street, and the distance from here to a peace agreement is vast," Barak said, speaking at a ceremony for Israel Defense Forces reservists at the President's Residence.
"Peace will come only from a position of power and security," Livni said.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who also met with Kouchner, told him that while Israel is ready to make painful concessions for peace, an agreement will not be reached if Damascus continues to provide support to Hezbollah and Hamas, and to serve as Iran's central ally.
Olmert spoke to the 27 ambassadors from EU nations in Tel Aviv and called on the EU to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations. He asked them to support sanctions on groups that aid Hezbollah and to prevent the transfer of funds to the group.
Israel has asked the EU numerous times to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and more so since the Second Lebanon War. But many European countries refuse due to the complex Lebanese political situation and Hezbollah's participation in the Lebanese government.
The EU lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, and keeps to the official policy of not having any contact with the group, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist and does not renounce terror.
On Wednesday, Olmert told Kadima and Labor Party officials that the defense establishment had been in on the secret of the Syrian talks, and that Barak was updated on their progress. Olmert said Barak supported him and gave advice.
Livni was also updated on the Syrian channel, Olmert said, except for the last few days when the talks were held in Turkey. In addition, the Americans knew of the talks, but did not take a stand one way or the other.
The security cabinet is expected to meet next Thursday to discuss the northern front, and most likely the talks with Syria as well. On Sunday, the cabinet will have a security briefing; a number of ministers are expected to voice reservations on the negotiations with Syria.