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MIDEAST: Final Hours Find Newly Conciliatory Olmert

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Sep 29 2008 (IPS) - In an interview with a newspaper on the eve of the Jewish holidays, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a frank assessment of the concessions that Israel would have to give to achieve a lasting peace with its neighbours.

Olmert told the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Israel would need to end its 41-year occupation of the West Bank and also give up most of its territory in East Jerusalem to the 270,000 Palestinians who live there.

The comments come as Olmert is on his way out of office. Olmert resigned just over a week ago facing pressure from an ongoing corruption probe. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was chosen as his successor to lead the centre-right Kadima party. As she attempts to put together a coalition, Olmert remains on as the head of a caretaker government.

Olmert’s comments were striking for their specific vision of what peace settlements would look like both with Palestinians and Syria, with whom Israel began peace negotiations through Turkish mediation earlier this year.

Many of the positions Olmert took put him out front of U.S. administrations that have made efforts in the various peace negotiations, but commentators said it was unlikely that this would significantly shift the U.S. position – especially with outgoing U.S President George W. Bush’s Annapolis conference failing to meet its goals and the U.S. giving only lukewarm approval of talks with Syria.

Olmert also renounced some of his past positions over the last 35 years.

“For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth,” he said.

In a soft criticism of his predecessor, Olmert said that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “spoke about painful prices, and refused to elaborate on them.”

“In the end,” said Olmert getting down to specifics, “we will have to withdraw from the lion’s share of the territories. […] What I’m saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me. The time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table.”

The interview is the latest in a political swing for Olmert where he has gone from taking hard-line positions of the right-wing Likud party – significantly, including bring the first Likud mayor of Jerusalem – to strongly supporting negotiations with Palestinians as part of a peace process.

But many commentators noted that Olmert’s comments come only as he is leaving government. Olmert is unpopular in Israel and is considered a lame duck.

Olmert’s attempt to strike a “shelf agreement” peace deal with the Palestinian leadership before a self-declared December deadline looks unlikely, meaning that though he delivered strong words in this latest interview, little of the thinking will likely be enshrined in any sort of lasting policy.

“Whoa. What an epiphany: In order to make peace with the Arabs, we must give them land. How come we never thought of that before?” asked Aluf Benn – with more than a hint of sarcasm – in an analysis for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz titled “Olmert’s epiphany is too little, too late.”

“[…M]ost regretfully, he has reached this realisation too late for it to have any influence,” wrote Benn.

Benn also criticised Olmert for being too easy on Israeli settlers, who create illegal settlements in Palestinian territories.

“Olmert’s attitude toward the settlers raises doubts about his trustworthiness,” he wrote.

But just last week Olmert drew fire when he called violent settler activities against Muslim Palestinians “pogroms”, defined as organised massacres.

“This phenomenon of taking the law into their own hands and of brutal and violent attacks is intolerable,” said Olmert at a cabinet meeting last weekend after a violent incident where more than 100 settlers attacked a Palestinian village. “There will be no pogroms against non-Jewish residents.”

In another incident of settler-inspired violence, a leftist professor and peace activist, Zeev Sternhell, was the victim of a pipe-bombing outside his home last Friday.

Some commentators have suggested that, like with the negotiations with Syria and the peace process with the Palestinians, the U.S. lags behind in its condemnation of the Israeli settler movement.

“In addition to ongoing American fecklessness in the face of Israeli settlement expansion, which of course does no favours to Israel itself, there is also the noteworthy private contribution of the right-wing in America, including John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, in directly funding settlement expansion and entrenchment,” wrote former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy on his blog ProspectsforPeace.com.

As reported by IPS last week, an international group made up of the U.S., the United Nations, Britain and Russia in order to facilitate the peace process, the Quartet, has been woefully inadequate in combating growing and multiplying Israeli settlements, according to a new report from international aid organisations.

The response to Olmert’s comments from the left-leaning press dripped of sarcasm – despite Olmert adopting their positions, albeit “too late”.

However, some pro-peace commentators exhibited a measured appreciation of Olmert’s positions even though they are unlikely to bring about change.

“I think its extremely significant that the leader of Israel – a person who came from the right; who was a Greater Land of Israel supporter; under whose reign as the mayor of Jerusalem [supported an undivided Jerusalem] – is now saying that was not the right way to go,” Ori Nir, the spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now, told IPS.

Irrespective of clout or lame-duck status, Nir said it was “significant” that an Israeli prime minister had publicly taken the left-of-centre views held by his organisation – a shared Jerusalem, and a withdrawal from the West Bank with a 1:1 proportioned land swap for territories which Israel keeps.

“The fact that he’s now voicing this as the only workable formula is very important,” said Nir.

The Israeli right, on the other hand, pulled no punches in dismissing their erstwhile ally and his new views.

According to the conservative news organisation, Newsmax, National Religious Party legislator Zevulun Orlev told Israeli Army Radio, “The country is very lucky he is now leaving his post.”

Silvan Shalom of Likud called Olmert “naïve”, according to the Associated Press.

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