JERUSALEM // Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, took a rare public jab at his successor on yesterday, saying that Israel should agree to the US demand to halt settlement construction in the West Bank in order to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.
In the same interview, he also did not deny allegations by the former US president George W Bush that Israel was responsible for the bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor.
Mr Olmert suggested the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Obama administration are wasting valuable time by focusing on such a "marginal" issue, rather than tackling the essential issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Barack Obama has asked for a new three-month moratorium on settlement construction after a 10-month slowdown expired in September, causing peace talks to stall.
Mr Netanyahu has yet to commit to a renewal, saying he is waiting for written US assurances. Palestinians say they will not return to negotiations without a total freeze.
Mr Olmert, who resigned two years ago to face corruption charges, has largely kept a low profile since leaving office in early 2009 and has refrained from publicly criticising Mr Netanyahu.
Speaking to foreign correspondents, he said he would not have agreed to a settlement freeze in the first place, saying it was more important to focus on larger issues like final borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. But he said he would not turn down a request from Israel's closest ally and endanger ties.
"If someone says that he agrees to 10 months of freezing and the president of the mightiest nation on earth and friendliest nation to Israel comes to you and says 'please give me two [more] months, only two months,' I mean what could happen in two months?" he said. "I would say 'president, why two? Why not three? Take three!"
Mr Olmert said both Israel and the US should instead focus on reaching a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Since leaving office, Mr Olmert has confirmed he made Israel's most far-reaching offer to the Palestinians, proposing a Palestinian state on close to 94 per cent of the West Bank, and offering them the equivalent of the final six per cent of territory in a land "swap."
Mr Olmert said the Palestinians never responded to his offer, made in the final months of his term in office.
"I think that they made a mistake. I think that the fact that they didn't respond to my proposal was a historic mistake of the highest order that they will live to regret for a long time, until someone will come from our side with the same ideas," he said.
The Olmert plan would have also have turned over Arab neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem to Palestinian control. Jerusalem's Old City, with its holy sites, one of the most intractable issues dividing the sides, was to be governed jointly by Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, he said.