JERUSALEM — 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, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published Monday.
"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 Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "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. But 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 beliefs held as central to the Jewish state and a personal mea culpa. Though fresh rounds of talks with the Palestinian Authority and Syria were launched under his watch, Olmert acknowledged 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, noting that he opposed 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."
It is unclear what impact Olmert's statements will have, since he is most likely in the final weeks of his administration.
But they offered a telling portrait of Israeli political life and the constraints facing prime ministers who must constantly hedge their views on land-for-peace deals and especially on Jerusalem to maintain their governing coalitions.
Since it became clear more than a month ago that he would have to resign, Olmert has charted an increasingly leftist course in a country where right and left are often defined by how much land one is willing to cede to the Palestinians.
Seemingly freed from the pressure of courting the right-wing vote, Olmert has spoken out harshly against violence committed by Jewish 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 the interview published Monday, 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 incendiary 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 unfairly hounded from office just on 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," wrote esteemed Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn in Haaretz. "And where was Olmert when the Israeli left, and the whole international community, was repeatedly exhausting this claim?"