JERUSALEM — In his first major policy address since becoming Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that he backed the creation of a Palestinian state and that Israel would have to relinquish parts of the West Bank to maintain its Jewish majority.
"We support the establishment of a modern, democratic Palestinian state," Olmert said at the annual Herzliya Conference near Tel Aviv. "The existence of two nations, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is the full solution to the national aspirations and problems of each of the peoples."
He said he was following the path set down by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who suffered a stroke on Jan. 4 and remains in a coma.
Olmert said the biggest challenge facing Israel was defining the country's permanent borders in ways that assured a continued Jewish majority. He said demographic realities required handing back parts of the territories.
"The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the land of Israel," he said. "We will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives."
Olmert said this was an opportune moment to revive peacemaking efforts, with the Palestinians holding parliamentary elections today and with Israel holding its legislative elections on March 28.
Like Sharon, Olmert said he would be guided by the road map, the international peace plan that was introduced in 2003 but stalled.
Neither side has met its requirements in the first stage of the plan, which has three stages and ultimately calls for a comprehensive peace agreement and a Palestinian state. Still, Olmert cited the rarely mentioned second stage, which would allow for a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
Olmert stressed that, in any final settlement, Jerusalem would remain a unified city under Israeli control.
Responding to the speech, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said: "I want Mr. Olmert to know he has a partner on the Palestinian side. I hope he will abandon unilateral Israeli actions and come back to the negotiating table so both sides can begin to implement their obligations under the road map."