Ehud Olmert: The man who came within weeks of peace

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Ehud Olmert: The man who came within weeks of peace

A year out of prison, the 72-year old former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke to Jewish News’ foreign editor about working with American and Palestinian presidents, what Israel needs to do to make peace, and where he goes from here.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

You can think of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as the man who came within an inch of making peace with the Palestinians, the corrupt politician who finally got jailed after several investigations, or the man whose investigations and jailing was the direct result of his peace-making. He thinks of himself as the latter.

He thinks a lot of things, and over the course of a 90-minute interview, repeatedly backs his opinions with examples, experience and polite common sense. For instance, when I ask in my first question whether he’s surprised that relations between Israel and the Gulf states still aren’t normalised, he says: “Yes. Had I been remained prime minister they would have been.”

There is nothing under-confident about Olmert, who came within four months of making peace with the Palestinians, according to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He still thinks the plan he proposed is “the only game in town”. What game is that?

“It’s based on a two-state solution on the ’67 borders, which is what the Palestinians say they want, with tiny swaps of territory, maybe 4-6 percent of the West Bank retained by Israel and swapped by an equal size territory. I agreed that the Arab part of Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state.”

Is the two-time mayor of Jerusalem talking about a shared capital? “Not shared,” he says stridently. “Jerusalem is important for me, for the Jewish people, but I don’t care what people say about the ‘united city,’ it’s a slogan, it doesn’t mean anything. Jerusalem never contained Beit Hanina, or Shu’fat Refugee Camp, or Jaber Mukabar, or Al-Sawahreh. This has never been part of any territory significant to the Jewish people. I am absolutely for Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, but Jerusalem, not all the Arab villages.”

Ten years ago he was also talking about the holy sites being administered by a multi-national trust. Is that still his thinking? Absolutely. “To be absolutely sincere to ourselves and our heritage, can we say the holy city of Jerusalem is not of significance to the Christian world, or the Muslim world?” He talks of “overlapping [religious] interests” and says: “There can be no exclusive sovereignty for anyone for the holy sites. It creates endless confrontation and will never allow a full and genuine peace. Best to define the territory of the holy basin then appoint a trust made up of the Saudis, Jordan, Palestinians, Israel and America, governed by an agreement authorised and approved by the UN to define the authority of the trust, based on free access to all believers to all the holy sites.”

Ehud Olmert was in London last week to debate former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at an Intelligence Squared event

He talks about his late-night hours-long discussions with Abbas in his study, Olmert smoking a cigar, Abbas a cigarette, and tells me that Abbas tacitly agreed no right of return. “I said the Saudi peace initiative, approved by the Arab League, was a good framework for resolving the issue of the refugees. On the right of return I said ‘no way,’ from Day 1, and Abbas, from Day 1, said to me he doesn’t want to change the nature of the State of Israel, that no-one will come anyway. What did it mean? It meant that while we were trying all the time to force him to say he supports Israel as a Jewish state – which I’m absolutely certain would have been accepted and integrated into the agreement at the end – to ask him to agree to this at the beginning, which was his main card, that was a mistake.”

It was serious stuff. He says he was willing to give Abbas “a gesture” on refugees (5,000 over five years) and that President George W Bush offered to give 100,000 American citizenship if it helped, but says there were moments of levity, too. “What about family reunions?” Abbas once asked him. “I said ‘Mr President, do I look like an idiot? You will say we only want to reunite three families – the Zoabis, Husseinis and Shukeris. Together they are 600,000!”

Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush

It’s a strange experience sat talking for so long about the minutiae of making peace with the Israeli leader who came closest to doing so. How close was he, I ask. If there was general agreement on land, Jerusalem and refugees, where were they still at odds?

“It was small differences on territory, ‘not six percent but four percent,’ that kind of thing. That’s more or less where it was. The Palestinians always say that of all the Israelis they ever dealt with, the one they trust most is me, that I was willing to go all the way. So the middle point between us and them is me. They already said to me they are ready for swaps of two percent, but it isn’t enough, we need more. I said six percent but I tell you now I was willing to go down to 4.4 percent. That’s where it was, the very last, final stages of negotiation, and it could have been resolved, but it wasn’t.”

As he talks I ponder what risks the current Israeli prime minister has taken to reach a settlement, and it clearly perplexes him why those lining up to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu should seek to ape him. I ask if Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is the man to make peace. “If he is he needs to say it, and say how. Unfortunately there is an inclination amongst the challengers to Netanyahu to repeat, more or less, what Netanyahu says. They assume Israelis are leaning to the right so they think you have to appeal to them by saying what Netanyahu says. My attitude is entirely different. I don’t think Israelis are leaning to the right or that they want challengers like Lapid or [Labor leader Avi] Gabbay to say what Bibi says. If they have to choose, they will go to the original, so I don’t think it is working.”

Ehud Olmert in London last week

Since Olmert was prime minister, from 2006-9, the settlements have grown and so has their power base, the influence of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party now keenly felt in government. If he were negotiating today, would this tie his hand? “Its influence is noticeable, and to my mind, exaggerated. But it can be changed. I think I know how it can be changed, but I don’t want to argue on the basis of ‘if I were’ – I’m not. At the end of the day, what we need is not a right-winger, or a left-winger, but a leader that has the inner strength and courage to stand up for his principles. You’d be surprised but if there was someone who said the opposite of what Netanyahu says, he will still be respected and supported. That’s what people want, a leader who knows to bang on the table and say ‘this is what we need to do and we will do it.’ So when someone starts to move like Bibi and speak like Bibi and comb like Bibi and dress like Bibi people will say ‘OK, then Bibi.’”

It was big money support for Bibi that undid him, he says, talking of “an enormous effort, financed by rich Jews in America”. Does he mean casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, estimated to be worth $43 billion? “Amongst the most prominent of them was Adelson, and he can sue me for libel if he wants – he’s got unlimited resources to do it. But the fact remains that he created a newspaper with an investment close to a billion dollars, Israel Hayom, for one purpose: to put me down and bring Bibi up. And it worked.”

Olmert in court in 2015

Citing evidence in his recently-published book, he says: “Private detectives used to call people and ask them to incriminate me, offering millions of dollars. There are tapes that show it.” Referring to discontent over the war in Lebanon at that time, he says: “The demonstrations were encouraged and financed by right-wing money. There was a whole staff created by Bibi and his people for that purpose, financed by outside sources.” It’s what he genuinely believes. It’s sad that he does, and even sadder if it’s true.

As our interview draws to a close, I note that he recently asked the Attorney-General to erase his criminal record. Is this so the 72-year old highly experienced ex-convict can re-enter Israeli politics? “First of all that it means I want justice. And the rest? Let’s wait for the future.” As evidenced by his answer, he’s a born politician. “I don’t know if I am. I’m an Israeli who cares about the future of Israel, who knew how to handle the affairs of Israel and the strategic needs of Israel in a way that now a lot of Israelis miss. I have experience that hardly any Israeli has, elected nine times to parliament, twice as mayor of Jerusalem, and also as prime minister. I have been very active in the centre of Israeli politics for four generations. The rest, you know, it’s for historians.” So, that’s a yes then.

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