Once hawkish, Olmert pushes peace

Israel's prime minister is pressing for an agreement with Palestinians ahead of a US-hosted summit.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ten years ago, when Ehud Olmert was a right-wing mayor of Jerusalem, he built his political persona around his frequent vows to keep the city united as Israel's capital forever.

Today, as prime minister, Mr. Olmert is making moves that suggest he could be the first Israeli leader to attempt to get his people to swallow the prospect of dividing Jerusalem.

As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up a visit to the region Tuesday ahead of a US-sponsored international summit in Annapolis, Md., Olmert showed a readiness to talk business with the Palestinians on a land-for-peace proposal. Such a deal would likely transfer Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to Palestinian control and would include Israel annexing large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

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"There is a clear campaign of Olmert putting himself out there and saying we're going to push for [an agreement with the Palestinians]," says Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

For some, Olmert's palpable tilt toward peace shows an evolution in his outlook on the Middle East conflict, a shift from his hawkish days as a young ultranationalist member of Knesset in the right-wing Likud Party to a pragmatic statesman-in-the-making. For others, Olmert's rightist past and the multitude of problems he's accumulated in his time since being elected prime minister – from several police investigations into his personal business dealings to a scathing government commission report on his performance in leading Israel into a devastating war last year – make him a suspicious candidate for piloting the country to peace.

"He used to belong to the right wing of the right wing, and as he grew in power he moderated," says Reuven Hazan, a specialist in politics and public opinion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Either he's had a real conversion over time or he's a true political opportunist, and when he understood that the country was moving away from the hard right, he moved with it."

Indeed, Olmert – whose political life was hanging by a thread only months ago – seems to have accurately read public opinion. This week, the Israeli media praised a major speech he gave Sunday night at the Saban Forum in Jerusalem, in which he promised to enter into "vigorous, ongoing, and continuing negotiations" with the Palestinians after the Annapolis conference.

"If we and the Palestinians act with determination, there is a chance that we can achieve real accomplishments perhaps even before the end of President Bush's term in office," he said. He added: "This is a good moment. I am excited by the chance to contribute to our chances. I know all the excuses and arguments why not, but I believe – from the bottom of my heart – that the time has come."

The press responded with a decisively different tone than it often takes with Olmert, calling his words "courageous," "bold," and "statesmanlike."

Olmert's pitch for peace – and his conception of a two-state solution – differs from that of the leading Israeli peacemakers of the 1990s, says Mr. Indyk. "Notice in Olmert's speech that he talks about a Jewish state for the Jewish nation and a Palestinian state for a Palestinian nation," Indyk says. "From the Israeli government's view, if a Palestinian state is going to be established, they want it to lead to a recognition as the Jewish nature of Israel."

Olmert will most likely pursue the possibility of territorial swaps with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which would also mean a concomitant – and highly controversial – transfer of population from within Israel proper to PA control.

The most frequently mentioned scenario would be to take a large Arab town near the 1967 boundary or Green Line, such as Umm el-Fahm in the north or a Bedouin Arab locale in the south, and to transfer these to the PA in exchange for Israel annexing large settlement blocs in the West Bank. In so doing, Israel would not just be trying to put the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict to rest, but to solve Israel's demographic struggle with its Arab population, much of which identifies itself as Palestinian.

This formula has been espoused by Olmert's far-right Minister of Strategic Affairs and Planning, Avigdor Lieberman, and has raised a sense of alarm among Israeli-Arabs, who make up close to 20 percent of the population of Israel.

But according to a poll by the Dahaf polling organization, Olmert's approval ratings jumped to 41 percent – up six points from the month before – after he announced last week that he'd been diagnosed with cancer, which he plans to treat after the Annapolis meeting. His disclosure was roundly viewed as a brave break with past behaviors of Israeli leaders vis-à-vis their private lives.

All this seems like a reversal of fortunes for Olmert. Having started as a "young prince" in the Likud Party, he followed Ariel Sharon into the newly fashioned Kadima Party in late 2005; Olmert found himself in control of it when Sharon slipped into a coma in January 2006. A lawyer by training, he has been dogged by police inquiries into problematic real estate deals in Jerusalem and questions from the public about what he actually stands for.

When the Winograd Commission in May launched the first stage of its report on Israel's behavior in the 2006 war in Lebanon, the critique of Olmert was so scathing that his own foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, asked him to resign.

"Until now, his associations are with personal corruption and security incompetence," says Mr. Hazan. "What we see is a political attempt to revive his party and what it stands for, and a personal attempt to show he can lead."

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