In a single passionate interview recently, Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister, managed to do what most politicians only dream about -- recast a nation's political and diplomatic agenda.
Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been talking vaguely about "unilateral steps," vis-a-vis the Palestinians, for some time, nothing could have prepared the Israeli public for the urgency in his deputy's recent plea. Olmert called for Israeli withdrawal from large swaths of Palestinian-populated territory, including parts of Jerusalem, without so much as a hint of a Palestinian quid pro quo.
Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, made his call for a unilateral pullback in a high-profile exchange with a leading political journalist, Yediot Achronot's Nahum Barnea. The interview startled the left by appropriating one of its central ideas -- the demographic threat to the Jewish State -- and throwing the right, to which Olmert nominally belongs, into confused disarray.
Borrowing from the political idiom of the left, Olmert told Barnea that time was running out and that Israel needed to separate from the Palestinians before they started calling for a single binational state, in which Arabs soon would be the majority. Since there is no chance of a deal with the Palestinians any time soon, Olmert argued, Israel would have to make the move unilaterally -- and the sooner the better.
Olmert's proposal comes in the wake of the unofficial Geneva accord peace proposal, which was launched with much fanfare last week, and a grass-roots peace petition led by Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh and former Israeli security official Ami Ayalon. Settlers also have proposed their own peace plan in recent weeks.
Olmert's dramatic policy shift is significant, because unlike the other initiatives, it arises from within the ruling Likud Party.
Yet it comes at a political price: If it sinks without a trace, the proposal could cost Olmert his career. If it gets off the ground, it could break up Sharon's center-right coalition and even split the Likud, to which both Olmert and Sharon belong. However, it also could change the course of Israeli history if it rallies the right behind policies already supported by much of the left.
Olmert gave an inkling of things to come in an early December speech at David Ben-Gurion's grave site on the anniversary of the death of Israel's first prime minister. Of all Ben-Gurion's voluminous sayings, Olmert chose to quote one on the folly of trying to retain the entire biblical Land of Israel.
"Suppose we would have conquered all of western Israel," Ben-Gurion mused shortly after the 1948 War of Independence, referring to the West Bank. "Then what? We would create a single state. But that state would want to be democratic. There would be general elections, and we would be a minority. Faced with the choice of the whole land without a Jewish State or a Jewish State without the whole land, we chose a Jewish State."
Israel's chattering classes pricked up their ears, detecting a change in Olmert's worldview. Then, in the interview with Barnea, Olmert elaborated on the demographic threat to which Ben-Gurion had alluded.
The time is fast approaching when Arabs will constitute a majority in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Then, Olmert said, Palestinians will abandon their calls for an independent state and instead will demand a one-man-one-vote system in a binational state that they will control.
"The day we come to that," Olmert said, "we will lose everything. Even when they carry out terror, it's hard for us to convince the world of the justice of our cause."
"How much the more so," he continued, "when all they ask for is one man, one vote? I shudder to think that the same liberal Jews who led the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will be at the forefront of the struggle against us."
The event that crystallized Olmert's thinking was the collapse of the government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in September. Abbas' failure in optimal international conditions led Olmert to conclude that a peace agreement with the Palestinians was not possible.
Adding to Olmert's sense of urgency was Israel's loss of support on the world stage -- especially in the United States -- in the wake of Abbas' failure and the emergence of new peace proposals like the Geneva accord, which are less favorable to Israel than the official "road map" peace plan.
Progress in building the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank made the idea of unilateral separation more practical. The key question now is the extent to which Sharon will back his deputy's bold proposal. Olmert implied that the prime minister has gone through the same thought process and has reached similar conclusions.
However, aides said the unilateral pullback that Sharon favors would come only after an attempt to reach an agreement with Ahmed Qurei, the new Palestinian Authority prime minister, and would be much smaller in scope than Olmert's.
Likud critics of both Sharon and his deputy believe Olmert is floating a trial balloon for the prime minister and that Sharon will modify his policy according to the feedback. In both cases, though, the withdrawal would entail evacuation of many Jewish settlements.
The talk of unilateral withdrawal has triggered a fierce ideological debate within the Likud, with most public figures highly critical of Sharon and Olmert, accusing them of selling out party principles and giving in to terrorism. One legislator, Gilad Erdan, has signed up one-third of the party's Knesset caucus against the unilateral moves; another, Ya'acov Hazan, has tabled a bill stipulating that any dismantling of settlements would require a two-thirds majority in the Knesset.
In a tense Likud Party caucus meeting in late November, Erdan challenged Sharon, saying bluntly, "Perhaps we," the ideological purists, "don't belong in the party -- and perhaps someone else doesn't."
The direction the ideological battle will take depends on whether party heavyweights who oppose unilateral moves -- especially Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- decide to lie low or to challenge Sharon.
Theoretically, Netanyahu could lead a vote of no confidence in Sharon and, with the support of 61 Knesset members, replace him as prime minister. Such a scenario is far-fetched -- it would mean splitting the Likud -- but it's a possibility.
What is certain is that if Sharon does move toward unilateral withdrawal, he would lose his two right-wing coalition partners, the National Union bloc and the National Religious Party, and would have to bring in the Labor Party to replace them.
Effi Eitam insisted that his National Religious Party will not remain in the coalition and said unilateral moves defy logic.
"We won't be in the territory, we won't have an agreement and we will have given a prize to terror," Eitam said.
The unilateral withdrawal plan comes partly to counter a flurry of private initiatives: The Ayalon-Nusseibeh statement of principles and the Geneva accord both deal with the demographic problem by drawing the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state more or less along Israel's pre-1967 border with Jordan.
The settler plan would solve the problem by offering the Palestinians Israeli citizenship but by weighting voting procedures so that the country is always ruled by a Jew.
Olmert argued that his plan is superior to all three: The settler plan almost surely is a nonstarter and, compared to Ayalon-Nusseibeh and Geneva, Olmert's recommendations would maintain the country's current demographic balance -- approximately an 80-20 ratio of Jews to Arabs inside Israel -- while giving up less land and retaining more of Jerusalem, specifically the Temple Mount.
The immediate question, though, is whether Sharon will stay the course and risk his coalition, his position in the Likud and a possible head-on clash with his greatest rival, Netanyahu.