Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says pullback's only path to peace

Tuesday, September 30th 2008

BY Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM - Israel must withdraw from most of the West Bank and give up East Jerusalem if it ever hopes to have peace with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Monday, stunning fellow Israelis.

He also said the Golan Heights must one day be returned to neighboring Syria.

"One more hill, another 100 meters, it's not something that will affect Israel's security," Olmert told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

"What I am telling you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me. The time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table," he declared.

Just what his words will mean for the peace process is uncertain. Olmert has been forced to step down over a corruption scandal and now heads a caretaker government while newly-elected Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni tries to form a new governing coalition the next five weeks.

If she fails , new national elections will be held in six weeks.

Olmert said Israel had a limited window of opportunity to take "a historic step" in relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.

His comments provoked outrage from the Right and amazement from the Left.

The Yedioth Ahronoth wrote that Olmert's comments would complicate Livni's job even before she takes over.

"He places on the doorstep of his successor a foreign policy doctrine, the likes of which has never been spoken by an incumbent prime minister," commented his interviewers.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem - areas captured by in the 1967 Mideast war - for a future independent state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but retains overall control over the West Bank and all of Jerusalem.

Essentially, Olmert wants Israel to return to its 1967 borders - before the Arabs attacked.

"At the end of the day, we will have to withdraw from the most decisive areas of the territories. In exchange for the same territories left in our hands, we will have to give compensation in the form of territories within the State of Israel," Olmert said.

"We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories," Olmert said.

"I think we are very close to an agreement," he added.

Most observers believe Olmert has no chance of achieving a breakthrough before he steps down and say he will more likely to be remembered for his ill-fated attack on Lebanon in 2006 than any peacemaking. He

Turning to Syria, Olmert said he had initiated secret talks in February 2007.

"It is true that an agreement with Syria comes with danger," he said. "Those who want to act with zero danger should move to Switzerland."

"I'd like see if there is one serious person in the State of Israel who believes it is possible to make peace with the Syrians without eventually giving up the Golan Heights," he said, referring to the strategic plateau which is the only occupied area outside Jerusalem formally annexed by Israel.

He admitted that his views had changed since he entered politics 35 years ago.

"For many of those years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth," said Olmert, who once was mayor of Jerusalem.

His comments, signalling the most far-reaching concessions ever made in public by an Israeli leader, provoked fury among his critics. The Right accused him of betraying his nationalist roots and tying the hands of future Israeli peace negotiators. The Left demanded to know how his policies in office for nearly three years squared with his new-found generosity.

"The prime minister's concession of the essential borders for defense is a gamble on our very existence, and the future of the State of Israel," said Yuval Steinitz, a right-wing member of parliament and former chairman of the Knesset Defence Committee.

Steinitz said Olmert did not understand "the fundamentals of security."

Yossi Beilin, a leading dove-ish MP, said Olmert's change of heart had come too late.

"Olmert has committed the unforgivable sin of revealing his true stance on Israel's national interest just when he has nothing left to lose," said Beilin.

"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… stifle any peace process," Beilin said.

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