Israel will have to give up "almost all" of the West Bank areas it occupies and accept the division of Jerusalem in order to take advantage of a rapidly closing window of opportunity for peace with the Arabs, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published yesterday.
"The decision we are going to have to make is a decision we have been refusing for 40 years to look at open-eyed," the Israeli leader told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot. "The time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table."
Olmert has resigned from the premiership because of a host of corruption investigations. He remains in a caretaker position while Tzipi Livni, his successor as head of the ruling Kadima Party, works to assemble a new government.
His interview with the prominent Israeli daily amounted to both a challenge to the Jewish state and a personal mea culpa. Although fresh rounds of talks with the Palestinian Authority and Syria were launched under his watch, Olmert conceded that some of the positions he was advocating in the interview - such as the division of Jerusalem - were things he opposed during most of his 35-year political career.
"I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city," said Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem who recalled opposing the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. "For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at the reality in all its depth."
He said traditional Israeli defense strategists had learned nothing from past experiences and seemed stuck in the considerations of the 1948 Independence War.
"With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop," he said. "All these things are worthless."
He added, "Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the state of Israel's basic security?"
The impact of Olmert's statements is unclear as he is probably in the final weeks of his administration.
But it offered a telling portrait of Israeli political life and the restraints facing prime ministers who must hedge their views on land-for-peace deals and especially on Jerusalem in order to maintain their governing coalitions.
Since it became clear more than a month ago that Olmert would have to resign, he has charted an increasingly leftist course in a country where right and left often are defined by how much land one is willing to give up to the Palestinians.
Seemingly freed from the restraints of having to court the right-wing vote, Olmert has spoken out against violence committed by settlers in the West Bank. After a prominent leftist professor and author was injured by a bomb left outside his home, Olmert warned Sunday of "an evil wind of extremism" sweeping through Israel.
In yesterday article, from an interview conducted the day after his Sept. 21 resignation, he said Israel must "withdraw from the lion's share of the territories."
For the small percentage of West Bank land that Israel retains, the Palestinians must receive the same amount of territory in Israel, in compensation. He advocates "special solutions" for the issue of sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem and its sacred sites, such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, but doesn't go into detail on those solutions.
Olmert cast himself as a defeated maverick hounded from office just of the verge of making peace.
Others were less respectful of his late-career transformation.
"What an epiphany: In order to make peace with the Arabs, we must give them land. How come we never thought of that," Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn wrote in Haaretz. "And where was Olmert when the Israeli left, and the whole international community, was repeatedly exhausting this claim?"
Olmert also addressed the question of Syria, saying that Israel had to be prepared to give up the Golan Heights but that in turn Damascus knew it had to change the nature of its relationship with Iran and its support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia.
Reaction from the Israeli right was swift. Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said on the radio that Olmert was "endangering the existence of the state of Israel irresponsibly."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.