Olmert says peace requires Israeli withdrawals

JERUSALEM — Israel will have to give up virtually all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem if it wants peace with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a farewell interview published today.

Olmert, who began talks with the Palestinians and Syria during his soon-to-end term, also said Israel would have to leave the Golan Heights in order to obtain peace with Syria.

The comments were the clearest sign to date of Olmert's willingness to meet the demands of Israel's longtime enemies in peace negotiations. But their significance was uncertain, since Olmert's days in office are numbered and peace negotiations will soon become the responsibility of a different Israeli leader.

However, his remarks could restrict the ability of his successor to maneuver, by defining a land-for-peace equation.

More than anything, the interview marked Olmert's transformation from a vocal hard-liner who for decades opposed any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, to a leader whose views are virtually identical to those of the dovish politicians he once pilloried.

As mayor of Jerusalem and a hard-line lawmaker, Olmert opposed any compromise in the city and encouraged efforts to build Jewish neighborhoods in the largely Arab eastern sector to cement Israel's control.

"I'm the first one who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the whole city. I admit this," Olmert told the daily Yediot Ahronot. He said that for decades he "was not prepared to look at reality in all of its depth."

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for a future independent state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but retains overall control over the West Bank and all of Jerusalem.

Olmert said Israel would keep "a percentage" of the West Bank but would have to give Palestinians the same amount of Israeli territory in exchange, "because without this there will be no peace."

He said Israel would have to leave parts of east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as their future capital, saying Israel couldn't hope to maintain its control of the more than 200,000 Palestinian residents there.

He mentioned three recent attacks in which Palestinians from east Jerusalem have rammed Israelis with vehicles, killing three people and wounding dozens. He said anyone who wants to stop the attacks "must give up parts of Jerusalem."

There would be "special arrangements" for the city's holy sites, he said, without offering details. East Jerusalem is home to key Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites, and resolving the competing claims to the area is perhaps the most contentious issue in peace talks.

Olmert said time was "so short that it is terribly distressing."

"We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning that we will withdraw in practice from nearly all of the territories, if not from all of them," Olmert said.

In trying to forge peace deals with the Palestinians and Syria, he said the decision Israelis now had to make "was a decision that we have been refusing to look at open-eyed for 40 years."

David Baker, a spokesman for Olmert, confirmed the content of the interview was accurate.

Silvan Shalom of the hard-line Likud Party criticized Olmert — a former Likud member who helped found the centrist Kadima party in 2005 — for adopting the views of Israeli doves, and called Olmert "naive."

Any West Bank pullout would allow the Islamic militant group Hamas to take over there just as it seized power in Gaza after Israeli pulled out, Shalom said.

Olmert has been forced to step down by corruption allegations, and will depart officially once Kadima's new leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, forms a new government or elections are held.

Peace talks were launched at a U.S.-sponsored conference last November, but negotiations have not yielded dramatic results and the sides have all but abandoned the goal of reaching a deal by the end of 2008.

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