Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was well aware that he resembled the generals who join a peace movement as soon as they retire. "I have not come here to justify my actions over the past 35 years," he said. "For a large portion of that period, I was unwilling to look reality in the eye."
Olmert, who has resigned but will stay in office until a new government is formed or an election is called, gave a valedictory interview to the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on September 29, and said something that no previous Israeli prime minister has said. He declared that if Israel wants peace, it must withdraw from almost all the lands it occupied in 1967. Unfortunately, it's probably too late.
Not only is it a bit late for Olmert to tell the Israeli public this harsh truth, since he is leaving power now. It's also too late for Israelis to act on his advice, even if they accepted it, because the situation has changed.
That isn't Olmert's own view. What he says is: "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."
If Israel wants peace with Syria, he says, it must give back all of the Golan Heights. If it wants peace with the Palestinians, "we must...withdraw from almost all of the [occupied] territories, if not all of them. We will maintain control of a certain percentage of the territories [where the big Jewish settlements are], but we will have to give the Palestinians a commensurate percentage of our land, because without this, there will be no peace."
Not only that, but Olmert now says that Israel must let go of predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority wants as the capital of its future state. A "special creative solution" would get around the question of sovereignty over the disputed sacred sites in the Old City.
If Israel had been willing to make such a peace deal in the 1990s, it could have worked, but the only Israeli leader of that era who might eventually have offered such terms to the Arabs was Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin was murdered by a right-wing Jewish extremist in 1995, no other Israeli prime minister has been willing to go so far—including Olmert during his two and a half years in power.
But the new reality, which Olmert does not acknowledge, is that no Israeli leader will be free to make that deal in the next five or 10 years. It is the right deal to make in Israel's own long-term interests, but only if the Arab partners can guarantee that Israel will get permanent peace in return for giving back the land. They cannot guarantee that, because they don't even know if they will survive.
Consider Syria. The old dictator died in 2000 after a mere 30 years in power, and his son still rules there eight years later, but the country is much less stable than it used to be. Many elements in Syrian society have been sharply radicalised by the American invasion of Iraq and the flood of refugees from there. Nobody knows if Syria is heading for a revolution, but the possibility certainly exists.
If there were a revolution in Syria, the winners would almost certainly be Islamists who reject any peace with Israel. So what Israeli leader in the next five or 10 years could sell the public on a peace that returned the Golan Heights to Syrian control? A few days of violence in Damascus could turn that peace into a nightmare that sees a hostile Syrian army back on the heights that overlook northern Israel.
In the case of the Palestinians, the Islamists of Hamas are already in control of the Gaza Strip, and there is no single Palestinian authority for Israel to make a peace deal with. The notion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in the current circumstances is purely a fantasy that is maintained to indulge the Bush administration.
Even Egypt, whose peace treaty with Israel is almost 30 years old, is not a reliable partner any more. If there were to be a truly free election in the next five years, the Muslim Brotherhood would probably form the next government—and they have already said that their first act would be to hold a referendum on the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It would probably be rejected by the voters.
So even if Israeli voters were willing to listen to Ehud Olmert in principle, they would not dare to act on his advice now. Perhaps in time the likelihood of Islamist regimes coming to power in Israel's neighbours will shrink. Perhaps there will then be a majority of Israeli voters who are willing to back the kind of deal that Ehud Olmert has just outlined. But not this year, not this decade, and probably not this generation.