Olmert Calls for the Division of Jerusalem

Israeli PM: divide Jerusalem, return Golan Heights to Syria.

September 29, 2008, 10:16 AM

JERUSALEM, Sept. 29, 2008 — -- Ehud Olmert is still the prime minister of Israel. Despite his resignation announcement, he remains the man in charge until a replacement is confirmed.

And as such he has again, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, given the traditional wide-ranging newspaper interview.

It makes for surprising reading.

Most surprising of all is the tone Olmert's used during a passionate declaration that Israel is reaching a critical moment in its relationship with the Palestinians and with Syria.

"What occupies me is what awaits my children and my grandchildren. In a few years, my grandchildren will ask what their grandfather did, what country we have left them," he told Yedioth Ahranot, Israel's leading daily newspaper.

Olmert clearly states his belief that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories in return for peace.

"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," he said.

Olmert has been leading peace negotiations with the Palestinians led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas.

The talks were launched last year at a U.S. summit in Annapolis, Md. There, an ambitious target was set -- to reach an agreement by the end of President Bush's term in office.

During his interview Olmert explained his political change of heart. For years he was a member of the right wing Likud Party, devoted to maintaining Israel's grip on as much land as possible.

But during today's interview he even called for the division of Jerusalem between Israel and the future state of Palestine, one of the most sensitive issues to be discussed.

"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. A decision has to be made," he said.

Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem during the 1990s, a period in which he supported the expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and was devoted to maintaining full control over the city.

"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 depth."

Olmert is similarly strident in his calls for Israelis to understand the need to give back the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria. Under his direction Israel has entered indirect talks with the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.

"I want to see whether there is one serious person in Israel who believes that peace can be made with the Syrians without ultimately giving up the Golan Heights," he told the paper.

At the end of 2005 Olmert followed his longtime mentor Ariel Sharon away from the Likud Party to a new one created to continue Israel's withdrawal from Palestinian territory.

After Sharon suffered a stroke early in 2006, Olmert found himself the unlikely leader of the Kadima Party.

From the evidence of today's interview, he appears to have also made the same political journey that Sharon made when he decided to evacuate Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005.

What drove both men is the desire to establish internationally recognized borders for the Jewish state.

"The goal is to try and reach for the first time the delineation of an exact border line between us and the Palestinians, where the whole world -- the United States, the U.N., Europe -- will say, these are the borders of the state of Israel, we recognize them, we anchor them in the formal resolutions of international institutions," Olmert said.

Olmert admits that giving up land for peace is painful. But says he fears that a determination to hold on to all of the land of Israel poses a greater threat to the Israel's existence.

For many former right-wingers, drawing the country's borders and separating Israelis from Palestinians is the only way to preserve a clear Jewish majority.

Today's interview shows how urgent Olmert believes that task to be.

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