JERUSALEM (JTA) – A Rosh Hashanah-eve interview in which outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel should give up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria and nearly all of the West Bank for peace with the Palestinians has sparked a political storm in Israel.
Prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, who is set to succeed Olmert as soon as she forms a coalition government, quickly distanced herself from most of Olmert’s key pronouncements, which included an assertion that it would be megalomaniacal for Israel to attack Iran unilaterally.
Politicians on the right lambasted Olmert for his dovish message, and left-wingers slammed him for not going public with his vision before he was a lame duck.
Some Israeli analysts saw evidence in Olmert’s transformation from one-time super-hawk to unmitigated dove of a final collapse of the ideology of Greater Israel, which advocates holding on to as much conquered territory as possible.
Olmert, who is stepping down amid a corruption investigation, in the interview published last week by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot made the following points:
* It is presumptuous to think Israel can stop Iran’s nuclear drive when powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Britain and Germany seem unable to do so.
* Israel has a very short window of time in which it can take “historic steps” in its relations with the Palestinians and the Syrians.
* For peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to withdraw from most of the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and grant compensation on a one-to-one basis for whatever land it keeps. “Without this, there won’t be peace,” he insisted.
* For peace with Syria, Israel will have to return the Golan Heights.
* Israel is very close to agreement both with the Palestinians and Syria, and if Olmert had stayed on he would have had a good chance of closing the deals.
* The main security problem Israel faces today is missiles, and having the border a few hundred yards one way or the other won’t make any difference.
* Years of conservative thinking by the Israeli establishment have undermined peace prospects.
“When I listen to you, I know why we didn’t make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians for 40 years and why we won’t make peace with them for another 40 years,” he recalled saying at a recent forum with the country’s top policymakers.
If the interview was meant to constitute Olmert’s political legacy, his presumptive successor was quick to reject it.
Livni, the foreign minister, said Olmert was wrong to go public with Israel’s final negotiating positions while she is in the midst of intensive negotiations with the Palestinians.
“We agreed negotiations should take place in the negotiating room, not on the pages of a newspaper,” she said at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem after Rosh Hashanah.
Olmert also was roundly criticized on the right for saying too much and on the left for doing too little.
Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party took issue with Olmert’s contention that in an age of missiles, Israel could afford to give up hundreds of yards on its borders.
“Ignoring the difference between rockets fired from long distances and an enemy perched on hills above Jerusalem shows just how little he understands basic security issues,” Steinitz said.
Yossi Beilin of the Meretz Party castigated Olmert for “revealing his true position on the national interest only when he has nothing to lose.”
Those sentiments were echoed overseas, where Olmert’s conciliatory positions were welcomed but with wonderment at why he hadn’t said as much earlier.
An editorial in The New York Times summed up the sentiment in an editorial Saturday titled “Mr. Olmert’s Belated Truths.”
“It is tragic that he did not do more to act on those beliefs when he had real power,” the editorial said.
Olmert is the fourth Israeli prime minister to start his political life as a hawk in the vein of the Likud or its predecessor, Herut, and then to surprise observers later with the extent of his willingness to make far-reaching concessions.
Herut founder Menachem Begin returned the Sinai to Egypt; Benjamin Netanyahu withdrew Israeli forces from Hebron, concluded the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians and negotiated with Syria over withdrawing from the Golan; and Ariel Sharon pulled back unilaterally from the Gaza Strip.
Olmert, it seems, has now set the stage for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
Olmert confidants argue that the frank expression of his views has positive elements for future peacemaking and diplomacy. They say it has created a strong incentive for the various Arab parties to negotiate peace and shown the international community how far Israel would be willing to go – a possible public relations advantage if peace efforts fail.
Moreover, they say, Olmert has put peacemaking and its time constraints squarely on the public agenda.
Critics, however, reject these claims. They point out that Olmert’s stated readiness for full withdrawal on all fronts encourages Arab parties to cling to maximalist positions, not compromise. It also puts the next Israeli prime minister on the spot: If peace moves break down, they say, the next prime minister will be blamed for not going as far as Olmert would have.
Livni bristled at the implication that peace would be achievable under Olmert if he could have stayed on, and if she failed to achieve peace during her tenure as prime minister, she would be to blame.
Most importantly, Livni, Olmert’s likely successor, also came out against the substance of Olmert’s key positions.
In a meeting Sunday in Jerusalem with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Livni said she opposed the framework of Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians. She said she was against making far-reaching proposals for a quick fix and that negotiations should be allowed all the time they needed to ripen into a well-constructed and lasting deal.
Livni was critical as well of Olmert’s position on Iran. In the Yediot interview, Olmert dismissed as “megalomania” the notion that Israel would or should unilaterally attack Iran. Olmert said the international community, not just Israel, should take the steps necessary to arrest Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Livni said Olmert’s remarks sent the wrong message to Tehran and that Israel should be sending the message to the Iranians that all options are on the table.
Despite her sharp criticism, Foreign Ministry officials said Livni does not think Olmert’s comments will have a serious impact on the peace process.
“Olmert is not relevant anymore,” a senior ministry official told JTA. “What he says doesn’t matter.”