Turning point in Israel

IN ISRAEL last week, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, an ally of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon within the right-wing Likud Party, said in interviews that if Israel cannot negotiate a peace accord with Palestinians, he would favor a unilateral withdrawal from "most of the territories." This would mean, Olmert said, that "a considerable number of settlements and a considerable number of people" -- settlers -- "will have to move into different areas."

Generally regarded in Israel as the preview of an imminent policy change floated with Sharon's consent -- a supposition Olmert did not contradict -- Olmert's scheme for a unilateral Israeli fixing of the borders for a Palestinian state provoked vehement protests from disparate quarters. Militant settlers and Palestinian political figures were equally vociferous in denouncing what has been called the Sharon-Olmert plan.

Their reasons for castigating the plan were hardly alike. Hard-line settler groups anticipated a betrayal by Sharon, who has long been their staunchest backer in the upper echelons of Israel's political establishment. The current Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, warned that it would be "a terrible mistake to try to impose a solution on us by force."

However, Olmert's proposal induces hope, not so much for its components as for his status as a hawk and the reasons he gave for putting it forward. Implicit in his remarks was a historic turning point: a public recognition by a Likud leader aspiring to succeed Sharon that the time has come for the Israeli right to relinquish the dream of implanting facts on the ground in the form of settlements that would one day culminate in a permanent Greater Israel.

Olmert's stated reason was demography -- the prospect that if Israel does not separate itself from a Palestinian state, Palestinians will soon outnumber Jews in Israel. At that point Israel will confront a stark choice: either cease being a state of the Jewish people or cease being a democracy.

"We are getting close to the moment when Israel must make a strategic decision," Olmert warned. "The things we thought are critical are losing their importance -- the support of the American administration, for example." He explained that even if President Bush were to release Israel from its commitment to the road map and increase America's foreign aid package for Israel, "How will that help us deal with a majority of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the sea?"

The retort from Washington should be that it is also in Israel's long-term interest to abjure a unilateral attempt to draw borders and instead to seek a negotiated agreement on peaceful coexistence with a Palestinian state. In the long run, that is the sole formula for both justice and security.