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APN in the Blogoshphere in pieces re: Olmert's Interview

Global News Blog: "MIDEAST: Final Hours Find Newly Conciliatory Olmert";LA Times Blog Babylon Beyond "ISRAEL: Olmert's intriguing swan song";

Global News Blog: "MIDEAST: Final Hours Find Newly Conciliatory Olmert"

September 30th, 2008

by Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Sep 29 (IPS) - In an interview with a newspaper on the eve of the Jewish holidays, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave a frank assessment of the concessions that Israel would have to give to achieve a lasting peace with its neighbours.

Olmert told the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Israel would need to end its 41-year occupation of the West Bank and also give up most of its territory in East Jerusalem to the 270,000 Palestinians who live there.

The comments come as Olmert is on his way out of office. Olmert resigned just over a week ago facing pressure from an ongoing corruption probe. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was chosen as his successor to lead the centre-right Kadima party. As she attempts to put together a coalition, Olmert remains on as the head of a caretaker government.

Olmert's comments were striking for their specific vision of what peace settlements would look like both with Palestinians and Syria, with whom Israel began peace negotiations through Turkish mediation earlier this year.

Many of the positions Olmert took put him out front of U.S. administrations that have made efforts in the various peace negotiations, but commentators said it was unlikely that this would significantly shift the U.S. position - especially with outgoing U.S President George W. Bush's Annapolis conference failing to meet its goals and the U.S. giving only lukewarm approval of talks with Syria.

Olmert also renounced some of his past positions over the last 35 years.

"For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth," he said.

In a soft criticism of his predecessor, Olmert said that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "spoke about painful prices, and refused to elaborate on them."

"In the end," said Olmert getting down to specifics, "we will have to withdraw from the lion's share of the territories. [...] What I'm saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me. The time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table."

The interview is the latest in a political swing for Olmert where he has gone from taking hard-line positions of the right-wing Likud party - significantly, including bring the first Likud mayor of Jerusalem - to strongly supporting negotiations with Palestinians as part of a peace process.

But many commentators noted that Olmert's comments come only as he is leaving government. Olmert is unpopular in Israel and is considered a lame duck.

Olmert's attempt to strike a "shelf agreement" peace deal with the Palestinian leadership before a self-declared December deadline looks unlikely, meaning that though he delivered strong words in this latest interview, little of the thinking will likely be enshrined in any sort of lasting policy.

"Whoa. What an epiphany: In order to make peace with the Arabs, we must give them land. How come we never thought of that before?" asked Aluf Benn - with more than a hint of sarcasm - in an analysis for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz titled "Olmert's epiphany is too little, too late."

"[...M]ost regretfully, he has reached this realisation too late for it to have any influence," wrote Benn.

Benn also criticised Olmert for being too easy on Israeli settlers, who create illegal settlements in Palestinian territories.

"Olmert's attitude toward the settlers raises doubts about his trustworthiness," he wrote.

But just last week Olmert drew fire when he called violent settler activities against Muslim Palestinians "pogroms", defined as organised massacres.

"This phenomenon of taking the law into their own hands and of brutal and violent attacks is intolerable," said Olmert at a cabinet meeting last weekend after a violent incident where more than 100 settlers attacked a Palestinian village. "There will be no pogroms against non-Jewish residents."

In another incident of settler-inspired violence, a leftist professor and peace activist, Zeev Sternhell, was the victim of a pipe-bombing outside his home last Friday.

Some commentators have suggested that, like with the negotiations with Syria and the peace process with the Palestinians, the U.S. lags behind in its condemnation of the Israeli settler movement.

"In addition to ongoing American fecklessness in the face of Israeli settlement expansion, which of course does no favours to Israel itself, there is also the noteworthy private contribution of the right-wing in America, including John Hagee's Christians United for Israel, in directly funding settlement expansion and entrenchment," wrote former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy on his blog

As reported by IPS last week, an international group made up of the U.S., the United Nations, Britain and Russia in order to facilitate the peace process, the Quartet, has been woefully inadequate in combating growing and multiplying Israeli settlements, according to a new report from international aid organisations.

The response to Olmert's comments from the left-leaning press dripped of sarcasm - despite Olmert adopting their positions, albeit "too late".

However, some pro-peace commentators exhibited a measured appreciation of Olmert's positions even though they are unlikely to bring about change.

"I think its extremely significant that the leader of Israel - a person who came from the right; who was a Greater Land of Israel supporter; under whose reign as the mayor of Jerusalem [supported an undivided Jerusalem] - is now saying that was not the right way to go," Ori Nir, the spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now, told IPS.

Irrespective of clout or lame-duck status, Nir said it was "significant" that an Israeli prime minister had publicly taken the left-of-centre views held by his organisation - a shared Jerusalem, and a withdrawal from the West Bank with a 1:1 proportioned land swap for territories which Israel keeps.

"The fact that he's now voicing this as the only workable formula is very important," said Nir.

The Israeli right, on the other hand, pulled no punches in dismissing their erstwhile ally and his new views.

According to the conservative news organisation, Newsmax, National Religious Party legislator Zevulun Orlev told Israeli Army Radio, "The country is very lucky he is now leaving his post."

Silvan Shalom of Likud called Olmert "naive", according to the Associated Press

LA Times Blog Babylon Beyond "ISRAEL: Olmert's intriguing swan song"

The Jewish new year celebration Rosh Hashana, which started Monday and ends Wednesday night, is meant to be a time of self-reflection and atonement for prior sins.

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to be taking that requirement quite seriously lately.

Olmert, who resigned about 10 days ago but remains as a caretaker until a new government forms, has been on a self-reflection and atonement kick lately.  In the process he has issued harsh critiques of Israeli political psychology and confessed to the wrongness of some of the policies he held dear during a 35-year political career.

In an interview published Monday in the Yediot Aharanoth newspaper, Olmert flatly stated that Israel  would have to give up the vast majority of the occupied West Bank and accept the division of Jerusalem in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Calling it "a decision we have been refusing for 40 years to look at open-eyed," Olmert all but apologized for his long-standing opposition to any division of Jerusalem. "For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at the reality in all its depth."

He went on to state that Israel should give the Golan Heights back to Syria in order to achieve peace there and spoke out harshly against any local sentiment to preemptively attack Iranian nuclear sites.

Rumors have swirled for months here that if the international community didn't decisively take on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Israel would attack Iran in a move similar to the 1981 bombings of the Osirik reactor in Iraq.

But Olmert dismissed such talk as a sign that Israel "has lost a sense of proportion about itself."

Instead he called for Israelis to abandon all talk of a unilateral strike and "act within the envelope of the international system."

Statements such as this from an Israeli Prime Minister would normally kick up an immediate hornet's nest. But it's unclear whether anyone in Israel is actually listening to Olmert any more.

After months of embarrassing revelations about corruption investigations that eventually forced him from office, his perceived failures of leadership during the Labanon conflict and a solid year of lackluster talks with the Palestinians, Israelis seem ready to see Olmert leave the national stage for a while.

Immediate reactions to the Olmert interview ranged from accusations that he was blatantly polishing his legacy to derisive mock-applause that he's just now coming to all these revelations on his way out the door.   

"Had Mr. Olmert said the same things even six months ago, let alone much earlier than that, the words might have mattered," wrote blogger Leonard Fein on the Americans for Peace Now website. "They amount to a fuzzy sop to all of us who have held the same views for many years now, but they are without practical effect."

-- Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem