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Archive for Tuesday, September 30, 2008

israel Jewish New Year celebrated; Olmert discusses peace

September 30, 2008

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— Israelis ushered in the Jewish New Year on Monday with festive family dinners - and a warning from their outgoing prime minister that they'll have to return virtually all the land captured in 1967 to win peace with the Palestinians and Syrians.

Ehud Olmert, who is giving up his office amid a corruption investigation, also exchanged holiday greetings with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. The Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashana, coincides this year with Eid el-Fitr, one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar.

The two leaders have been meeting regularly in recent months trying to work out a peace accord that would end their long conflict and give the Palestinians their own state. But the talks have not produced tangible results, and many Israelis and Palestinians are skeptical about prospects.

For many Israelis, the year that ended Monday was also disappointing in other ways. Top leaders, including Olmert, and a one-time president, Moshe Katsav, have been forced out by scandal.

"From the public, Israeli standpoint, the year that ends this evening should perhaps be erased from collective memory," columnist Eitan Haber wrote in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

"We are divided, skeptical, disbelieving, facing the greatest leadership crisis there has ever been here," added another Yediot columnist, Yair Lapid.

Rosh Hashana, which began at sundown, ushers in 10 days of soul-searching capped by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But the New Year holiday itself is a time for festive meals, which traditionally include an apple dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year.

Israel closed off the West Bank until late Wednesday, barring Palestinians from entering Israel. It is a measure common during Jewish holidays to deter possible attacks by Palestinian militants.

The Gaza Strip, the other Palestinian territory, has been virtually sealed off since June 2007, when the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control by force. The vast majority of the territory's 1.4 million Palestinians have been trapped there since then.

In his farewell interview as prime minister, Olmert said Israel will have to give up nearly all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem if it wants peace with the Palestinians, who plan their state for those areas and Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Olmert also said Israel would have to leave the Golan Heights, a militarily strategic high ground that looks down on northern Israel, to obtain peace with Syria.

The comments were the clearest sign to date of Olmert's willingness to meet the demands of Israel's longtime enemies in peace talks. But their significance was uncertain, since his days in office are numbered and negotiations will soon become the responsibility of a new Israeli leader.

Palestinians, meanwhile, prepared for Eid el-Fitr, the three-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Eid el-Fitr will start here today.

In Gaza, outdoor markets were selling nearly all the supplies needed for the holiday, but prices were up sharply, compared with the period before the start of the blockade.

Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics released its annual population figures to mark the New Year. It said 7.34 million people live in Israel, including 5.54 million Jews, or 75 percent of the population. There are 1.48 million Arabs, about 20 percent, and 315,000 members of other groups.

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