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Olmert Says Peace Talks with Syria Are 'Serious' and 'Secret'

New peace talks between Israel and Syria topped the agenda at the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Robert Berger reports from the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Cabinet that Israel is conducting negotiations with Syria "responsibly, seriously and with the necessary caution." Mr. Olmert has said the aim of the talks is a peace agreement, but he would not comment on media reports that he is prepared to return the strategic Golan Heights to Syria.

"We have heard many speculations and interpretations," he said, adding that Israel would conduct the negotiations in secret and not through the media.

Israel announced last week that it is holding indirect peace talks with Syria, mediated by Turkey. It is the first talks between the two countries since negotiations collapsed eight years ago over the scope of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. Israel captured the territory from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967.

Prime Minister Olmert hopes peace talks will push Syria into the camp of the Arab moderates, but many Israeli Cabinet ministers are skeptical. Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai said the negotiations are a mistake.

Yishai said Israel is giving legitimacy to Syria even though it is still part of the "axis of evil," as he put it, aligned with Iran and the Islamic guerrilla group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Mr. Olmert is also facing opposition from the Israeli public. A TV poll showed that 70 percent of Israelis oppose withdrawing from the Golan Heights as part of a peace agreement, with only 22 percent in favor.