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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.

Ehud_olmert_2007feb19 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

Photo: Courtesy of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv

P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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