Monday, September 29, 2008

Olmert speaks his mind

Over the past few days, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made some really remarkable statements.

Yesterday he said that Israel would have to withdraw almost entirely to its 1967 borders if it wanted to have peace with Palestine and Syria. In real terms this means giving back land in the West Bank, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem - all lands captured by Israel in 1967. Olmert said that this also means giving up nearly all of the West Bank settlements, and that Israel would have to swap land with Palestine at a 1:1 ratio for the settlements they want to keep.

It was amazingly free talk for an Israeli Prime Minister, even an outgoing one. The ideas of giving Israeli land for peace or abandoning settlements are always controversial issues within Israeli politics, so to suggest giving up all of the Golan Heights, and almost all of the West Bank is a pretty huge step. Olmert said that it was looking reality in the eye, something he was unwilling to do for the past 35 years.

"We have an opportunity that is limited in time, in which we can perhaps reach a historic deal in our relations with the Palestinians and another historic step in our relations with Syria. In both cases, the decision we must reach is a decision that we have been refusing to accept for the past four decades," Olmert said in a wide-ranging interview with Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He also said that Israel was silly to consider a strike on Iran to take out their nuclear program, saying such talk was part of Israel's "delusions of grandeur".

Olmert's comments Monday came after he warned on Sunday of "an evil wind of extremism" threatening Israel's democracy. There has been an increase recently in Israeli settlers in the West Bank launching attacks against Palestinian villages and farms - including setting fires to farmhouses and fields and assaulting Palestinians. More radical elements in the Israeli settler movement call the tactic the "price tag" that Israel will have to pay if the government tries to remove the settlements in the West Bank. Basically the settlers will cause chaos within Palestinian communities, forcing the Israeli military to enter the area to maintain security, getting bogged down in the process. A prominent Israeli critic of the settlement movement was also injured last week in a pipe bomb attack tied to radicals.

So, while you have to give credit to Olmert for speaking freely and opening about some crises facing Israel, it also would have been nice if he'd taken these positions when he had the power to make them a reality (a point some of Israel's left-wing politicians have also made). The position he laid out though just makes sense - so long as the West bank is filled with settlements, the Palestinians can never form a viable state, and as long as they don't have a country of their own it's hard to see them as "partners in peace" like the peace talks always suggest; while the Syrians aren't likely to ever accept a peace deal unless they get the Golan Heights back. Then there's the demographic argument - if Israel keeps occupying these lands, because of the higher birthrate among the Palestinians, it's estimated that within a generation Israeli Jews could be a minority within their own country.

But on a positive note, Olmert did suggest that his probable successor Tzipi Livni would follow the same path in dealing with the Palestinians and Syrians when she takes power.
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