JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, once one of Israel’s leading hawks, is leaving office an outspoken dove.
Forced out by corruption charges, Olmert is saying something that used to be fringe opinion among Israelis – that to make peace with the Palestinians, Israel must make sweeping territorial concessions, including Arab parts of Jerusalem.
“We must relinquish … parts of our homeland as well as Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and return to the seed of the territory that was the state of Israel up to 1967, with the necessary adjustments arising from the reality that has since been created,” he said in one of two speeches this week in which he laid out his credo.
The ideology he once espoused, of keeping the territory Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, “will not work. It is already not working,” he said in speeches Monday marking the 13th anniversary of the assassination of his dovish predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish nationalist.
“We were wrong. We did not see the big picture,” he said.
Unless the land was partitioned into Jewish and Palestinian states, it would morph into one country in which an Arab majority would mean the end of Jewish statehood, he warned.
“The moment of truth has come, and there is no escaping it … if God forbid, we drag our feet, we might lose the support for the idea of two states. The alternative is inconceivable.”
Never before has a serving Israeli prime minister spoken so forcefully for partitioning the land, and it was all the more striking given Olmert’s background.
Raised in a staunchly nationalist home on an ideology that opposed any territorial concessions to the Arabs, Olmert went on to serve in the hard-line governments of his former Likud Party.
In recent years, though, he has come to publicly embrace a land-for-peace deal, but never the formula of complete withdrawal with border “adjustments.” As deputy prime minister, Olmert helped lead Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He was elected prime minister in March 2006 on a platform calling for a broad withdrawal from the West Bank as well.
His latest speeches go further, to the astonishment of the public. They sound close to what has long between the international formula for Mideast peace but is sharply at odds with past Israeli governments that demanded a substantial redrawing of borders to protect the country from surprise attack.
“It’s amazing, but it is tragic,” says Moshe Amirav, a childhood friend of Olmert’s who recalls being expelled from Likud 20 years ago for saying what Olmert is saying now.
“But I am optimistic about the future,” added Amirav, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “If he, a right-wing prime minister, is saying this, there is hope.”
Olmert resigned in September because of corruption charges, but remains in office until a new government is formed after the Feb. 10 election.
Longtime Israeli doves fault him for not speaking up sooner. Lawmaker Yossi Sarid said he found the prime minister’s comments to be heartfelt but delivered publicly only when he had “nothing left to win and nothing left to lose.”
“It’s too bad he woke up so late,” Sarid said.
Olmert confidants say he couldn’t speak out so frankly as long as he had to hold a shaky coalition government together.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, her centrist Kadima party’s candidate to succeed Olmert, quickly distanced herself from his remarks.
“I am not committed to the words of the outgoing prime minister,” she told Israel’s Army Radio Tuesday. “We can conduct negotiations my way without having to reach the points the outgoing prime minister presented yesterday.”
Polls regularly show most Israelis support a two-state solution with the Palestinians, though not necessarily a withdrawal to the 1967 borders. “I am saying what this nation truly needs, not what it wants to hear,” Olmert said at Rabin’s grave.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat praised Olmert for his candor and remembered their first encounter 20 years ago.
“The man I spoke with then is a totally different man than the one I see before me today,” he said. “And maybe I am a different man now, too.”