Monday, September 29, 2008

Shana Tova from the outed PM: The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition staff and AP , THE JERUSALEM POST

Israel will have to give up virtually all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem if it wants peace with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a farewell interview published Monday, saying Israel faced a stark choice and needed to make a decision soon. Olmert also said Israel would have to leave the Golan Heights in order to obtain peace with Syria.

The comments were the clearest sign to date of Olmert's willingness to meet the Palestinians' demands, but their significance was uncertain, since Olmert's days in office are numbered and peace negotiations will soon become the responsibility of a different Israeli leader.

More than anything, the interview marked Olmert's transformation from a vocal hard-liner who for decades opposed any territorial concessions to the Palestinians to a leader whose views are virtually identical to those of the dovish politicians he once pilloried.

"We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, one meaning that we will withdraw in practice from nearly all of the territories, if not from all of them," Olmert told Yediot Aharonot.

Olmert said Israel would keep "a percentage" of the West Bank but would have to give Palestinians the same amount of Israeli territory in exchange, "because without this there will be no peace."

He said Israel would have to leave parts of east Jerusalem, saying Israel couldn't hope to maintain its control of the more than 200,000 Palestinian residents there.

He mentioned three recent attacks in which east Jerusalem residents have rammed Israelis with vehicles, killing three people and wounding dozens. He said anyone who wants to stop the attacks "must give up parts of Jerusalem."

There would be "special arrangements" for the city's holy sites, he said, without offering details.

As mayor of Jerusalem and a hard-line lawmaker, Olmert long opposed any compromise in the city and encouraged efforts to build Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem to cement Israel's control.

"I'm the first one who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the whole city. I admit this," he said. Olmert said that for decades he "was not prepared to look at reality in all of its depth."

Olmert said time was "so short that it is terribly distressing." In its attempts to make peace with the Palestinians and Syria, he said the decision Israelis now had to make "was a decision that we have been refusing to look at open-eyed for 40 years."

David Baker, a spokesman for Olmert, confirmed the content of the interview was accurate.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Olmert had not translated the conciliatory ideas he put forward in the interview into formal offers during nearly a year of peace talks.

"We have been having serious negotiations with the Israeli side, but up to this moment we have not received any written proposals from the Israeli side and Mr. Olmert," Erekat said. The Palestinians want to put the progress made so far in writing so that talks won't have to start from the beginning with Israel's next prime minister, he said.

Though Olmert might remain in power for several more months, his conversation with Yediot Aharonot was a farewell interview in which he summed up his time in office and defended his actions as Israel's leader.

Olmert said he would continue to try to strike a deal before he leaves office.

Israel "should not put off the decision," he said. "Either I will finish it, or [new Kadima leader] Tzipi Livni will, or whoever comes after her."

Olmert seemed to suggest the Palestinians were not matching what he described as Israel's far-reaching compromises. "Unfortunately, the Palestinians don't have the necessary courage, strength, internal determination, will or enthusiasm," he said.

Olmert said Israel would have to give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Syria.

In response to Olmert's statements, MK Zevulun Orlev (NU-NRP) said that the prime minister had proved he had lost control and was completely alienating himself from the ideological base he was educated by.

"The country is very lucky he is now leaving his post," Orlev told Army Radio.

MK Silvan Shalom (Likud) said that Olmert's comments exposed his leftist approach, like that of Meretz. In an interview with Israel Radio, Shalom likened Olmert to a blind man driving a car into the depths and said his idea to "establish Iranian and Hamas bases in the Golan Heights and West Bank" proved that he had lost his way.

Meretz MK Yossi Beilin lamented the fact that Olmert was only now exposing his true beliefs concerning Israel's national interests since he had nothing to lose.

"You believe it is in Israel's national interest to make peace, but for two-and-a-half years, almost three years, all you have done is wage an unnecessary war in Lebanon and woo [Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor] Lieberman into your government to stifle any peace process," Beilin told Army Radio, addressing the prime minister.

"You are today leaving the government having achieved a chemistry with Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] and with some sort of talks in Turkey with the Syrians, but these things won't be remembered," he said.
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