Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Israel will have to give up almost the entire occupied West Bank, including most settlements and East Jerusalem, as the price for peace with the Palestinians.  “What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” he declared—and he was right.  His comments have caused a major controversy: Israel officially considers the whole of Jerusalem her “eternal, undivided” capital, of which Olmert had been a hawkish mayor for a decade (1993-2003) before becoming prime minister.

Olmert told the Hebrew-language daily Yediot Aharonot that any parts of the West Bank retained by Israel would need to be compensated, in an eventual peace deal, by equal territory from pre-1967 Israel: “We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. . . . We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”

“Whoever wants to hold on to all of the city’s territory will have to bring 270,000 Arabs inside the fences of sovereign Israel.  It won’t work,” the caretaker premier added with reference to Jerusalem.  “A decision has to be made.  This decision . . . contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years.”  Conceding that “for a large portion” of the past 35 years of political activity he was “unwilling to look at reality in all its depth,” Olmert now admits that he “erred in his foreign policy views and actions for decades.”

Olmert’s assessment goes well beyond any stated readiness for territorial concessions by a key national political figure, let alone a prime minister still holding office.  Even if his words give a much-needed boost to the Israeli left, what will they do for the long-stalled “peace process”?  It may well continue humming promisingly on the Syrian front, but what Bashir Assad does, says, or thinks is of secondary importance.  More worrisome is that, on the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas may be removed from power come January 9—and his Islamist rivals do not acknowledge the need for any major concessions to Israel, including the recognition of her right to exist on any territory.

The suspicion that Arab promises are empty—unenforceable, or insincere, or both—is not confined to the Likud Party.  The question is whether people on Israel’s left who agree with Olmert will be able to obtain meaningful commitments from the Palestinian side before contemplating a new episode in the never-ending “process.”

A leading Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, responded by pointing out that Olmert had not translated his current conciliatory ideas into formal offers during nearly a year of peace talks that started last November.  “We have been having serious negotiations with the Israeli side, but up to this moment we have not received any written proposals from the Israeli side and Mr. Olmert,” Erekat told the Jerusalem Post.  The Palestinians want to put the progress made so far in writing, so that talks will not have to return to square one when Israel’s next prime minister takes office, Erekat said.

Among reasonable people of good will on both sides of the divide in the Holy Land, the concept of land for peace is still fundamentally valid.  It needs to be discussed in more practical terms than ever before, however: What land(s), exactly, for what kind of peace?  Signed and sealed by whom, on what surety, and with what external guarantees?

Olmert’s statements are likely to make it more difficult for the governing Kadima party’s new leader, Tzi­pi Livni, to stave off elections that could return the Likud to power.  Perhaps a secondary objective of Olmert’s sudden ultra-dovishness is to frustrate his old Kadima rival, even if that means the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu.