Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted this week that Israel must give up East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights to achieve peace, a view that may complicate efforts of his would-be successor to form a government.
Olmert’s comments, published Monday in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot, were the most far reaching he has ever made publicly. And he revealed that Israel and the Palestinians were “very close to an agreement.”
Citing three recent attacks from East Jerusalem Palestinians, Olmert said Israel “must give up part of Jerusalem” in order to stop future attacks. And he said flatly that peace with Syria could not be negotiated “without eventually giving up the Golan Heights.”
Olmert, who as mayor of Jerusalem had vowed never
to see it divided, now said peace was impossible without territorial compromise and that he would try to complete a peace agreement with the Palestinians before he left office. Although he resigned two weeks ago amid a corruption investigation, he still presides over a caretaker government and he continues to act as premier, traveling next week to Russia for talks about Iran.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the newly elected leader of the Kadima Party who is trying to form a new government, has not spelled our her views on the peace process. Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said Olmert’s comments “could potentially hurt her.”
“His views may make it more difficult for Livni to form a government,” he said. “There will be a greater reluctance by Shas to stay with the government if it is going to give away the store. Shas may say that if those are Olmert’s views they may be Livni’s.”
Steinberg noted that since Livni is considered more of a hawk than Olmert, she might not have completely formed her opinion about the peace process. He observed that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon changed his views while in the premier’s seat and suggested that “Livni is probably undergoing similar changes now, and it is hard for her to make a clear statement.”
Olmert’s comments were published three days after the Middle East Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — called on Israelis and Palestinians to conclude a peace agreement by the end of the year.
At the Security Council last Friday, there was criticism of Israeli settlement expansion. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said such expansion was preventing the “emergence of a viable Palestinian state” because settlements were dividing “the West Bank into at least four cantons.”
But Israel’s new United Nations ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, rejected the complaints, saying the real obstacles to peace were such things as “Hamas’ violent coup in Gaza, its enormous smuggling of weapons, its constant missile attacks against Israeli towns and cities,” the continuing threats by Iran to destroy Israel, the rearming of Hezbollah and terrorist attacks like the one last week in Jerusalem.
Israel is committed to a two-state solution, Shalev insisted.
But Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said in a new report that neither Israel nor the Palestinians “desire the conventional two-state solution” and that the Arab world is also opposed. In addition, he challenged the popular belief that the two sides were close to an agreement at the end of the Clinton administration.
“It’s a solution that not only can’t be agreed on, but probably can’t be implemented,” he said, referring to the evacuation of thousands of Israeli settlers and Israel’s security needs.
He proposed instead that the Gaza Strip be doubled in size with land donated by Egypt and that Jordan assume security control of the West Bank to prevent further Hamas inroads there.
But Dennis Ross, a former American envoy to Israel and now an adviser to the Obama campaign, said he doesn’t believe the Egyptians or the Jordanians would agree to Eiland’s “creative” proposal. And he said that although there may be plenty of problems with a two-state solution, it’s the best idea to date.
Ross, who was honored here last week by the American Friends of the Hebrew University, said also that other Arab states must get involved in the peace process.
“It’s not enough to have an Arab initiative,” he said, referring to an Arab promise of normalized relations with Israel in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 border, a return of all 3 million Palestinian refugees to Israel and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Ross said he also believed it is important for Israel to “test the Syrian track” to see if peace is possible with Syria.
“The greatest proponent of that track is the Israeli military and it should be tested,” he said.
The key to attaining peace with the Palestinians, Ross insisted, is reaching out and trying.
“When you don’t try, you undercut those on the Palestinian side who want to go the distance,” he said. “You weaken them and strengthen those who reject peace, like Hamas.”
He said the Palestinians could work to reduce incitement and that Israel could make its checkpoints more efficient by opening more lanes instead of only one.
“It’s not clear to me that new elections will serve the interest of those in the government, including Shas and Labor,” Ross said. “If she succeeds [in forming a government], it may last awhile.”
That view was echoed by Uri Savir, Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords and author of the new book, “Peace First: A New Model to End War.”
“[Livni] combines Left and Right and pragmatism, and she has credibility among the Israelis and Palestinians,” Savir said. “Any agreement will be brought to a plebiscite and will be supported by 70 percent of Israelis and Palestinians.”
Savir said such an agreement would “not be far away from the Clinton plan” – Israel would withdraw to its pre-1967 borders except for some security modifications and three or four large settlement blocs.
“Jerusalem may remain united,” Savir said, but the Palestinians would have autonomy over Palestinian neighborhoods.
Savir said Gazans would vote in a referendum on a proposed peace agreement and that a majority of all the Palestinians voting would decide the outcome. Implementation of the agreement could take two or three years, he said.
But not all Israelis are so optimistic. Carmi Gillon, former head of the Shin Bet, said he does not believe Israel has a serious Palestinian partner. He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is “too weak” to make an agreement and that Hamas would “never compromise because it is against their religion.”