Israel must pull out of the West Bank and cede part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians if it’s ever going to know peace, the country’s outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said in an extraordinarily frank interview with Yediot Aharonot newspaper published Monday.
In the interview — timed with the onset of the Jewish holidays — Olmert also said Israel would have to give up the Golan Heights to make peace with Syria, and dismissed as “megalomania” the idea that the Jewish State would or should attack Iran on its own to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.
That countered recent reports indicating Israel might have sought permission for such an attack from the United States. Olmert said it was the responsibility of the international community to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
The interview seemed to complete Olmert's transformation from a career hard-liner who long opposed any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, to a leader whose views are now aligned with the dovish, left-wing of Israel’s political spectrum. He is resigning to fight corruption charges, and the interview is sure to stir controversy as his successor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, tries to build a coalition.
“What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” Mr. Olmert told Yediot Aharonot. “The time has come to say these things.”
Olmert criticized what he called outdated thinking about controlling the high mountain ground of the West Bank and Golan Heights with settlements as a means of protecting the low-lying seaside regions of Israel.
“With them [military leaders], it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and this hilltop and that hilltop,” Olmert said of Israel’s military strategists. “All these things are worthless.”
“Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”
A former mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert for years opposed any compromise in the city and encouraged efforts to build Jewish neighborhoods in the largely Arab eastern sector to cement Israel's control. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the interview was his call for Israel to leave parts of East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital. Israel couldn't hope to maintain its control of the more than 200,000 Palestinian residents there, he said.
That goes against a central pillar of Olmert’s former allies on the right: that Jerusalem should never again be divided. But Olmert said that anyone who wants peace will have to “give up parts of Jerusalem." He suggested creating "special arrangements" for the city's holy sites to ensure equal access. East Jerusalem is home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, and resolving the competing claims to the area is perhaps the most contentious issue in peace talks.
The interview drew criticism from all points of the political spectrum Monday. Some dismissed it as Olmert trying to score political points for an eventual comeback, others as score settling against onetime allies who had abandoned him.
“What an epiphany: In order to make peace with the Arabs, we must give them land,” wrote columnist Aluf Benn in Haaretz, a rival Israeli newspaper. “How come we never thought of that before? And where was Olmert when the Israeli left, and the whole international community, was repeatedly exhausting this claim?
Zevulun Orlev, a legislator with the conservative National Religious Party, said that the prime minister had proved he had lost control and was completely alienating himself from the ideological base that has supported him for decades.
"The country is very lucky he is now leaving his post," Orlev told Israeli Army Radio.
Silvan Shalom, of the right wing Likud Party said that Olmert's comments exposed his leftist approach. He 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.
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 told The Jerusalem Post. 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.
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