AT first sight it is encouraging that Israel and Syria are talking about their differences, with the help of Turkey's good offices. In comparison with the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation the issues between Israel and Syria are simple. They centre on Israel's occupation of Syria's Golan Heights in 1967 during the Six-Day War - but there are “only” about 20'000 settlers there compared to the 450'000 in the West Bank.

Negotiations in 2000 faltered on Syria's insistence that it should get back the whole of the Golan Heights, including its water resources, and on the absence of any compensating offer from Damascus for this gain. Now Israel has very clear requirements in return for quitting the Golan Heights -- it wants Syria to end its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Gaza and to break its connection with Iran.

There is, however, an air of unreality about these negotiations, welcome though they are in principle. The office of the Israeli Prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said yesterday: “The two sides have declared their intent to conduct these talks without prejudice and with openness.” Mr Olmert is believed to be personally committed to the negotiations but in present circumstances this is not necessarily an advantage since he is under increasing pressure over allegations, which he denies, of taking bribes from an American businessman.

Furthermore his political position in a coalition is weak and any move, however conditional, to hand the Golan Heights back to Syria might be resisted by his coalition partners.