Fears ran rampant in Israel on Thursday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be preparing to surrender the Golan Heights to Syria in order to save his political career, or at least his legacy.
A day earlier Olmert's office and the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad issued simultaneous statements confirming that indirect peace negotiations are taking place, and have been for some time.
The news came as Olmert sank ever deeper into a corruption scandal that threatens to end his reign and bring about early elections in Israel, prompting lawmakers from across the political spectrum to cry foul. The prime minister was widely accused of being ready to surrender the Golan and risk Israel's security to save his own skin.
Syria had previously insisted that it would not even hold talks unless Israel came to the table ready to fully withdraw from the strategic Golan Heights. That talks are now taking place has increased concerns that Olmert has already made some kind of verbal commitment to meet Syria's demands.
Israel's opposition Likud Party issued a statement accusing Olmert of carrying out "a cynical and transparent stunt in order to deflect attention from his personal problems. Olmert is up to his neck in investigations against him and has no moral and public mandate to hand over the Golan and bring the Syrians back to the Sea of Galilee."
Right-wing lawmaker Aryeh Eldad told Israel National News that, similar to Ariel Sharon's evacuation of Gaza amidst a personal corruption scandal, so too will the depth of the criminal investigation against Olmert determine the extent of the concessions he is willing to offer Israel's enemies.
"Olmert thinks that if Sharon was spared from trial due to pushing through the Disengagement he can escape his by executing a withdrawal and handing parts of the land to someone who was just a short time ago seeking nuclear weapons," said Eldad.
Last September, Israeli warplanes conducted a daring and successful raid against a suspected nuclear weapons facility deep inside Syria. The American CIA recently confirmed the air strike in a briefing to the US Congress.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday tried to calm the waters by insisting that Israel would not sign any deal with Syria unless the latter first agreed to cut ties with Iran, Hizballah and Hamas. But an overwhelming majority of Israelis said even that would not be enough to justify giving up the Golan.
In a poll carried out by Israel's Channel 2 News this week, 70 percent of Israelis said they oppose a withdrawal from any part of the Golan, even in the framework of a genuine peace deal with the Syrians.
A 57 percent majority said they are certain that the sudden announcement of peace talks with Syria is connected to Olmert's legal woes, and 58 percent said the prime minister has no mandate from the public to be offering concessions to Syria.