Olmert: Israel must hand back land for peace with Palestinians and Syria
Outgoing PM says in newspaper interview there will be no deals without withdrawing from 'almost all' land captured in 1967 war
The outgoing prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, has said his country will have to withdraw from "almost all" the land it captured in the 1967 war and divide Jerusalem in order to agree long-awaited peace deals with the Palestinians and Syria.
His comments, which were unusually far-reaching for an Israeli leader, came in an interview with an Israeli newspaper ahead of the Jewish new year and days after his resignation. He remains in his post in a caretaker capacity and is thought unlikely to be able to follow through with any of the proposals he has made.
In the long interview with two senior political columnists at the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Olmert talked about peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians and continued to maintain his innocence over a series of high-profile corruption investigations that in the end pushed him to step down.
His most striking words came on the Palestinian issue. "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. "We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace."
Israel wants to keep some of the main settlement blocs in the West Bank, but in return for any occupied land Israel keeps the Palestinians want a land swap for territory of equal size and quality within Israel. If a peace deal is ever struck, that land swap would probably include a corridor linking Gaza and the West Bank.
At another point, Olmert said: "In the end, we will have to withdraw from the lion's share of the territories, and for the territories we leave in our hands, we will have to give compensation in the form of territories within the State of Israel at a ratio that is more or less 1:1."
Olmert said the withdrawal would have to include parts of east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war. "Whoever wants to hold on to all of the city's territory will have to bring 270,000 Arabs inside the fences of sovereign Israel. It won't work," he said. The prospect of dividing Jerusalem remains hugely contentious within Israel, although few believe a peace deal could work without a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem.
On Syria, he said his government began secret talks in February last year and said he believed that Israel would have to give up the Golan Heights in return for Syria breaking its relationship with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Olmert admitted his comments were rare. "What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me. The time has come to say these things." He seemed to admit his thinking in the past had been mistaken, particularly on his previous belief that Jerusalem should remain wholly inside Israel. "I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for 35 years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth," he said.
Olmert has taken a similar tone in several speeches since resigning, although he went further in this interview than before.
He has been in office since early 2006 and although peace talks have been under way with the Syrians and, for the past year, the Palestinians, there has been no concrete progress. Instead, Jewish settlements have continued to expand in the West Bank and the number of roadblocks and checkpoints has increased. Olmert has put off talks on the future of Jerusalem and adamantly refused to allow any Palestinian refugees to return to what is now Israel, even though both are core issues to be negotiated in peace talks.
Rather than being remembered for peace negotiations, Olmert is more likely to be remembered as an unpopular prime minister who was strongly criticised for his handling of the war in Lebanon in 2006 and who faced a long series of embarrassing corruption investigations - although no charges have yet been brought.
The two journalists who interviewed Olmert, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, wrote that his goal was to leave a legacy, defend his conduct and perhaps pave the way for a return to political office in the future. "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," they wrote.
They said it was legacy that might make life harder for Tzipi Livni, who replaced Olmert as the head of the ruling Kadima party and is now trying to form a coalition government that would make her prime minister. She would be called on to either back or reject Olmert's proposals and, as Barnea and Shiffer noted, "there is no diplomatic fog in this interview that she can hide behind".