Olmert: 'If talks fail, Israel will be finished'

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The state of Israel would be "finished" if prospects of a two-state solution collapsed, its Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned. Two opinion polls have shown widespread scepticism among the Israeli public about this week's Annapolis summit.

Mr Olmert told the liberal daily Haaretz: "If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished."

Mr Olmert's warning raising however obliquely a highly sensitive comparison with apartheid South Africa came as a poll in the newspaper showed that only 17 per cent thought the Annapolis conference a "success" compared with 42 per cent who thought it was a "failure".

A similar poll in Yedhiot Ahronot showed 50 per cent judging the conference a failure, with 83 per cent saying they need not expect a "final status" agreement by the end of 2008, the timetable fixed by the summit.

Mr Olmert appeared to be half-borrowing an argument used by the Israeli left and increasing numbers of Palestinians that if the occupation is not swiftly ended and a Palestinian state established, the alternative is a single state in which both Palestinians and Israelis would eventually have equal rights negating Israel's status as a "Jewish democratic state".

Unlike those critics of Israeli policy hitherto, he was careful not to declare explicitly that time for a two-state solution was running out, or venture a prediction of when such a "collapse" of the two-state solution might take place. Nor did he repeat the specific warning by the Israeli writer Amos Oz last week that the collapse of current efforts to negotiate a solution might lead to that very "demise" of the two-state solution. Oz said that the two alternatives to such a solution were either a single state or an "Israeli apartheid regime".

On the other hand his relatively apocalyptic warning is likely to be quoted back at him if the year of negotiations ushered in by Annapolis ends in the failure that most Israelis appear to expect.

Mr Olmert insisted that he had said similar things in an interview with the newspaper four years ago. In that interview, however. Mr Olmert was contemplating unilateral withdrawal from large parts of the occupied territories and strongly denounced the "Geneva Accord" reached between the left-wing Israeli politician Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, now a key Palestinian negotiator. The Geneva proposals based on 1967 borders with "modifications" requiring an equal land swap, East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and extensive compensation for refugees is thought to be close to the minimum that the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, might seek to accept in any final status agreement.

The Haaretz poll indicated that despite their scepticism about the prospect of a negotiated agreement, 53 per cent wanted one on the main issues, with 38 per cent objecting to such an agreement.

The poll also showed that 22 per cent were now satisfied with Mr Olmert as Prime Minister after a slow rise since his record slump in popularity after the Lebanon war.

The police yesterday recommended against prosecuting him over his handling of the privatisation of the Bank Leumi when he was finance minister, citing a "lack of evidence" that he had interfered to benefit a friend.

* Four Hamas militants were killed by air strikes in southern Gaza last night after what the military said was a rise in mortar and Qassam rocket attacks on Israel over the past week.