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By David Landau

Ehud Olmert delivers his message in euphemisms. Delicate, cautiously crafted ellipses, laden with nuanced significance. The vice prime minister, and minister of industry, and of labor, and of communications, and of the Israel Lands Authority, and of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, ensconced in his elegant new government office, wreathed in his trademark cigar smoke, is plainly reluctant to ruffle any feathers. Especially those of the man he hopes to succeed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His purpose is to sound a note of urgency, without even a hint of criticism.

But his message comes through clearly, nevertheless. "There is no doubt in my mind that very soon the government of Israel is going to have to address the demographic issue with the utmost seriousness and resolve. This issue above all others will dictate the solution that we must adopt. In the absence of a negotiated agreement - and I do not believe in the realistic prospect of an agreement - we need to implement a unilateral alternative."

When Sharon was challenged recently on the demographic issue, as he relaxed with aides and newsmen in his Moscow hotel lounge, he fobbed off the questioner with vague predictions of future aliyah and rosy reminiscences of the tiny pre-state Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine). Olmert invokes no such comforting calculations. "We don't have unlimited time," he says. "More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one. From a struggle against `occupation,' in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle - and ultimately a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.

"Of course I would prefer a negotiated agreement [for two states]. But I personally doubt that such an agreement can be reached within the time-frame available to us."

Olmert's "formula for the parameters of a unilateral solution are: To maximize the number of Jews; to minimize the number of Palestinians; not to withdraw to the 1967 border and not to divide Jerusalem." Large settlements such as Ariel would "obviously" be carved into Israel.

"Maximum Jews, minimum Palestinians" - this harks back to the language of long ago. And indeed, Olmert hankers unabashedly for those more hopeful times. "Twenty-three years ago," he says, "Moshe Dayan proposed unilateral autonomy. On the same wavelength, we may have to espouse unilateral separation. We won't need the Palestinians' support for that. What we would need is to pull ourselves together, to determine where the line should run."

Maximum, minimum, Dayan, unilateral line - all these seem to add up to large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank and probably full-scale withdrawal from Gaza. Hardly the stock-in-trade of the traditional Likud politician. "These are my own personal contemplations," Olmert says, "not yet evolved into a full strategy. I speak only for myself ... If I wanted to unfold a detailed blueprint I would do so. At this point, this is what I want to say."

As for Likud tradition, the prime minister's pronouncements on Palestinian statehood were sharp departures from that tradition, too, he says. Fundamentally, he adds, his own unilateralist ideas are at one with Sharon's repeated assertions that he would make "painful concessions" to achieve peace.

The subtext is clear enough, though Olmert, deft and careful, is not prepared to articulate it. The cabinet as presently constituted would presumably not endorse his proposed unilateralism. The two far-right coalition partners and several Likud ministers - but not Sharon, Olmert believes - would see it as defeatism. In terms of practical politics, therefore, the acceptance of Olmert's ostensibly still-inchoate ideas depends on the return of Labor to the national unity fold.

Olmert does not say so in so many words, but clearly he believes that Sharon himself will move in this direction, wooing Labor to join him in a drastic, unilateral act of separation. Olmert's Delphic formulation is: "I believe that in the course of time there might be a likelihood that the government might prefer this approach to the present situation and to the well-founded fear of demographic hazard."

The fence, now being built amid much controversy, would "ultimately become part of" the unilateral plan, Olmert says with deliberate vagueness. Unlike Ehud Barak, who advocates a unilateral withdrawal expressly depicted as temporary, pending negotiations, Olmert says his unilateralism "would inevitably preclude a dialogue with the Palestinians for at least 25 years." It would stand a good chance, he says, of winning "a degree of perhaps tacit understanding" from the international community, or at least from the important parts of it.

Olmert says his scheme does not reflect the lack of victory after three years of bloody intifada, but rather "the lack of realistic chances for a negotiated agreement in which we can live peacefully and comfortably." Drawing a unilateral line would probably not mean an absolute end of terrorism. That is perhaps unattainable. "But if we have total separation, it would reduce the terror to a manageable level - and enable us as a society to focus our energies on our own needs, our own agenda, our own mission."

Political insiders say Olmert has been dropping unilateralist hints for two or three months, but drawing back when urged to speak out. He himself says he has not debated his thinking with cabinet colleagues, preferring to await the right diplomatic and political constellation.

Quite possibly his wait was cut short by the publication last month of the Yossi Beilin-Yasser Abed Rabbo "Geneva Accord" and this has brought him to speak out now. Geneva demonstrably rattled the government - witness Sharon's furious "stab in the back" condemnation of the lengthy, unofficial negotiation that produced the accord. The continuing accolades that the accord has won from world leaders - Colin Powell was the latest to praise it last weekend - have added to the government anger and frustration over Beilin's coup, as well as over the earlier Ami Ayalon-Sari Nusseibeh agreement, which is also garnering support at home and abroad.

Olmert keeps harping on Beilin. Powell's praise, he insists, "does not accurately reflect the attitude of the president ... It does not mean that the U.S. endorses Geneva."

Only through a wholesale abdication of realism, he maintains, can anyone seriously believe that Geneva is a pattern for negotiated peace. A realist like himself admits to "a total disbelief in the prospect of an agreement." But, determined that Israel not be drawn passively by events into demographic disaster, the realist proposes an active, unilateral response.