The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said his country must give up virtually all the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, insisting in an interview published today that this is key to achieving peace with the Palestinians. "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," said Mr Olmert, who now heads an interim government following his resignation earlier this month.
"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," he said. "Including in Jerusalem," he said in reference to the predominantly Arab eastern part of the Holy City which Israel occupied and annexed after the 1967 war and which Palestinians want as the capital of their future state.
His comments are expected to stir deep controversy. Israel officially considers Jerusalem its "eternal, undivided" capital, a view Mr Olmert ? a former mayor of the city ? said he shared for many years. "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," said Mr Olmert. But he stressed that giving up parts of the city is key to Israel's security, pointing to deadly July attacks by Palestinians from east Jerusalem who ploughed through crowded streets with bulldozers.
"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," Mr Olmert said. "A decision has to be made. This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years." Reacting to the interview, Palestinian negotiatiator Saeb Erakat said Israel must "translate these statements into reality" if it is serious about wanting to achieve a peace accord.
"We haven't seen these statements translated into a piece of paper, into a concrete offer," he said, stressing that "the road to peace is through ending the occupation and (Israeli) settlements in the West Bank." Long-dormant negotiations were revived at a US-hosted conference in November, with both sides pledging to reach a peace deal by the end of the year. While little visible progress has been achieved since, Mr Olmert expressed the conviction that "we are very close to reaching agreement."
He said that also applied to indirect negotiations with longtime foe Syria which were relaunched in May after a eight-year hiatus, with Turkey acting as a go-between. He made it clear peace would come at a price for both sides, with Israel giving up the annexed Golan Heights and Syria ending its current ties with Iran and no longer backing "the Hamas terrorism, the al Qa'eda terrorism and the jihad in Iraq".
He warned however that there was no risk-free solution, without ruling out military confrontation in Syria in the coming years or renewed bloodshed in the West Bank. "We don't know, for example, what will happen in the Palestinian Authority after Jan 9, 2009," he said.
Mr Olmert formally submitted his resignation on Sept 21 amid deep political turmoil over a series graft allegations that caused police to recommend criminal indictments. He will remain interim premier until a new government is formed. *AFP