FULL INTERVIEW: Jewish News meets former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

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FULL INTERVIEW: Jewish News meets former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

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.

Ehud Olmert
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. 

Last week, a year out of prison, the 72-year old looked relaxed in T-shirt and sandals while in London to debate former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at an Intelligence Squared event. At his Knightsbridge hotel he spoke to Jewish News’ foreign editor Stephen Oryszczuk about working with American and Palestinian presidents, what Israel needs to do to make peace, and where he goes from here.

Q: In 2007 you were talking about the Arab Peace Initiative and normalising relations with the Arab world, but 11 years on they’re not. Would you have expected them to be normalised by now?

A: Yes, and had I remained prime minister they would have been. We were very close to making peace, talk to Dr Abbas and he will confirm it. I saw him on a TV interview, he indicated how close we were with his fingers, a millimetre, and he said ‘had Olmert been prime minister for four more months there would have been peace.’ The differences were really minor. I still believe that there will be peace, and when there is peace it will be more or less what I proposed in 2008. It’s the only game in town – assuming you do actually want to make peace. 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.

Q: So a shared capital?

A: Not shared. Jerusalem is important for me, for the Jewish people. 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 was never part of any territory of significance to the Jewish people. I am absolutely for Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel, but Jerusalem, not all the Arab villages that surrounds Jerusalem. The Jerusalem that was retained by Israel since 1967, plus the Jewish neighbourhoods that were built after ’67, is now universally accepted to be Jerusalem, and should be remain the capital of Israel, but all the rest?

Q: Ten years ago you were talking about the holy sites being administered by a multi-national trust. Is that still your thinking?

A: To be absolutely sincere to ourselves and our heritage, can one really say the holy city of Jerusalem is not of significance to the Christian world? For instance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the only church in the whole world that is accepted as a sacred place for all Christian denominations, not just Catholic or Franciscan or whatever. And of course you have the Al-Aqsa Mosque, so there is a problem here. There is no question that the Temple Mount is the most sacred place in Jewish history. The question is how you resolve something based on explicit contradictions that can’t be ignored or overlooked.

Q: What do you mean by ‘contradictions’?

A: Contradictions in terms of interests – Christian, Muslim, Jewish – overlapping interests. How to overcome it? I thought there could be no exclusive sovereignty for anyone for the holy sites, because it creates endless confrontation and it will never allow a full, comprehensive and genuine peace. So you have to find a way to do it. The way I thought best was to define the territory of the holy basin then appoint a trust made up of five nations: Saudis, Jordan, Palestinians, Israel and America, governed by an agreement authorised by the United Nations Security Council and approved by the UN General Assembly. It would define the authority of the trust, based on free access to all believers to all the holy sites.

Q: When you said you were close to agreeing peace with Abbas, was this part of it?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

A: Yes, this was part of the plan. The last issue was the refugees, because any peace needs to address borders, the status of Jerusalem, the holy sites and refugees. I accepted the Saudi peace initiative approved by the Arab League in 2002. I said it was a very good framework for resolving the issue of the refugees. On the ‘right of return’ I said ‘no way,’ right from the outset. And Mahmoud Abbas, from Day 1, said to me he doesn’t want to change the nature of the State of Israel, and that no-one will come anyway. What did this 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, I think that was a mistake. When he sat privately, just him and me, on Day 1, he said ‘I need a gesture on the refugee issue.’ I said ‘you’ll get a gesture, but no right of return.’ He said ‘OK.’ He understood that it was a non-starter. He said ‘I don’t want to change the nature of the State of Israel.’ What does it mean? It means he doesn’t want there to be so many refugees that it changes the nature of the Jewish state. This was obvious. I knew immediately, that there was this tacit understanding. So we spoke about this gesture. He said ‘What about family reunions?’ I said ‘Mr President, do I look like an idiot? You will say we only want to reunite three families – let’s say the Zoabis, the Husseinis and the Shukeris. Together they are 600,000!’ So he said ‘What do you suggest?’ I said I would accept as symbolic the entry of 5,000 Palestinians on humanitarian grounds, determined by Israel, with 1,000 a year for five years. At the same time I said we would create a big international fund to compensate Jews and Arabs who had to leave their homes as a result of the conflict. I think the international community, if it knew that peace was dependent on such a fund, would have created it. I spoke to Bush about it, he was in principle very favourable. So the principles were all there. I said we are not indifferent to the suffering of people who had to leave their homes, and know that since then many have lived in terrible conditions. But it is important to remember that it was us – Israel – who proposed this framework. We were the ones to do it. So it can not be said we do not want peace.

Q: If all the major points were agreed, what were the sticking points?

A: I had the investigations at the time…

Q: Sorry, that’s not what I mean. I mean if there was general agreement on land, Jerusalem and refugees, in what areas were the two sides still at odds?

A: Just small differences on territory, ‘not six percent but four percent,’ that kind of thing. That’s more or less where it was. They always say that of all the Israelis they ever dealt with, the one they trust most is me. They said right from Day 1, throughout the process, I was genuine, and willing to go all the way. So the middle point between us and them is me. They already said to me that they are ready for swaps of two percent of the territories, but it wasn’t enough because we need more. I said six percent but I’m telling you now I was willing to go down to 4.4 percent. So that’s where it was, the very final stages of a negotiation, and it could have been resolved, but it wasn’t.

Old City of Jerusalem’s iconic skyline

Q: What was Abbas like to negotiate with?

A: He’s committed to have peace with Israel. I thought so then, and I didn’t change my mind. But he is a tough negotiator. Strangely enough for some Israelis who can’t comprehend it, he was negotiating for the Palestinians, not for us. He was representing the Palestinians. What was expected of him – to be soft on everything? He is very polite, for sure, a pleasant person, that I have to say. We got along on a personal basis very well. We spent many hours sitting in the study of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, I was with cigar, he was with cigarettes – he used to say ‘Please, take your cigar so I can smoke too!’

Q: He’s an old man now, in poor health. What kind of Palestinian leader must come after him?

A: I don’t think we would want to get rid of him. Besides, it’s not for us to say who should lead the Palestinians. Yes, he is elderly, but great historical leaders took huge historical decisions when they were older. I look at some of the young guys now and I’m not so sure they’re fit for the responsibility. But there will come a time for a Palestinian leader and if they do not want to destroy the future of Palestinian children he will have to come to terms on the basis of this plan, because there can be no other, and everyone knows it. And it is incumbent upon us also to emerge with a leadership that is prepared to accept this, which I’m not sure we have at this point.

Q: Is Lapid the man?

Yair Lapid

A: I never heard from Lapid anything similar to that, so I don’t know. It’s a combination of two things. One is personality, stamina, inner strength, the ability to risk your popularity for the sake of achieving historical goals, without neglecting security. I don’t need anyone to preach to me what needs to be done for security. I proved it on different occasions of historical proportions. I know how to do it. But there is sense in doing it only if you are committed to take the historic opportunity to make peace, which is no less important, because it makes the security, stability and continuity that is essential. You ask about Lapid? He’s a very nice guy, very intelligent. I hear good things about him.

Q: Sure, but is he the man to make peace?

A: If he is, he needs to say it, and he needs to say how. Unfortunately I feel 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 they 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 the challengers like Lapid or 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.

Q: Since you were negotiating, the settlements have grown and so has the power of their representation, with the likes of Jewish Home now very influential. If you were negotiating now, would you have a lot more difficulty with the settler movement?

A: I think the settler movement is powerful, its influence is noticeable, but to my mind, exaggerated. 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, they want a leader who knows to bang on the table and say ‘this is what we need to do and we will do it.’ But 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.’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Q: You worked closely with Bush, and you said in your book he was prepared to take 100,000 refugees if it helped make peace

A: That’s right. He told me he would make them American citizens

Q: That’s in comparison to someone like Bush senior, who tried to take a hard line on the settlements, making it conditional on military aid to Israel. And now you’ve got Trump who seems to be writing Israel a blank cheque, exerting no pressure whatsoever and very unlikely to take 100,000 refugees. What kind of American president is best for Israel?

A: I must be careful with what I say here. We have a president who says he is a big supporter of Israel, so I cannot be unhappy with this. But things must be examined carefully on the basis of actions, not statements. America is pulling out of the Middle East completely, which leaves it to the growing and expanding influence of other forces. This is changing the geo-strategic balance in an area that is acutely important for Israel, with Russia and Iran and so on. Is this the best policy for Israel? Is this the expression of best friendship for Israel? So in terms of statements, yes, but in terms of actions taken, I’m not so certain about it. There is no question Trump is a friend of Israel, but I am not alone in having some doubts about the practical outcome of some of his policies. I heard he came back from his meeting with Kim of North Korea saying ‘everything is resolved, there is no atomic threat anymore, he’s a good guy’. Two weeks earlier I heard Kim was a danger to the world, so I don’t know, I didn’t work with Trump. I worked with George W Bush. He was supportive and sensitive, he wasn’t outspoken on issues that are important and delicate. He never said no to me. I also have enormous respect for Obama. At a time of economic crisis, when they were cutting their own military budget, this guy added hundreds of millions of dollars in military projects to Israel, on top of the foreign aid which I secured. In his eight years as president, Obama only once abstained on a UN vote on Israel at the UN, and only then after endless provocative actions by the prime minister of Israel, coming to the US Congress in complete opposition to the policy of the President. So in terms of Obama and Israel, I have no complaints.

Q: Do you think Obama’s approach to push for peace was the right action, or do you think Trump’s stand-off stance is better?

Ehud Olmert and George W. Bush

A: From what I hear I understand Trump is preparing a take-it-or-leave-it deal to be presented to the two sides, but I don’t know what he’s going to do. From my perspective, I don’t think we need America to come with a peace proposal. We don’t need anyone to come with a peace proposal. We have to present one, just as I did. I never needed Condoleezza Rice to push me to do something. She said in her book that she ran to her Israeli hotel room, called the president and said ‘Olmert wants peace, it’s sad that he will die before he achieves it, because they killed Rabin for far less.’

Q: Did that ever worry you?

Ex-president Barack Obama

A: No, but it worried her. The point is she didn’t need to present a plan. I did. I still believe it’s the right plan. There is no alternative and eventually it will be done.

Q: If you’d stayed in office for an extra few months and agreed terms, do you think Abbas could have carried the Palestinian street, and likewise, do you think you could have carried the Israeli street?

A: I think so, yes. Had there been an agreement signed in initials before the approval of the people of both sides, and had it been fully approved by the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly, that would have made an enormous impact on the constituents on both sides because for the first time there would not be just hypothesis, not just theoretical, but defined text, accepted by the international community, and signed in initials by both sides. The thing to remember is some people always want to stretch things. For instance, some say ‘what, you think the morning after the Palestinians sign it there will be no more terror?’ But it’s nonsense to argue like this, it’s childish to argue against making peace if it’s not completely guaranteed from the outset. Look, you can criticise it, but I think occupation at the beginning was an inevitable outcome of the situation that existed before the Six Day War, the outcome of the Six Day War, and the natural outburst of emotion and relief that came with it. We should have reassessed our attitude many years before but it doesn’t matter. For the Palestinian, it’s now 51 years. Imagine a guy who is approaching 60 years of age, he can’t remember not living under the aiming gun of an Israeli soldier, not living without searching his body, his wife’s body, his children’s bodies. The amount of bitterness that has built up, almost naturally, will not be wiped out overnight by some leader signing an agreement. But once there will be a Palestinian state, once they will have to start to build up their own state, the amount of positive energy that does exist amongst most of the Palestinians will eventually take over and change attitudes, but yes, it will take time.

Q: What would you do about Gaza? It’s a different kettle of fish.

A: Yes, and you have to feed the fish according the needs of the fish, and different fishes have different needs. I’m now accused by my opponents and extreme right-wingers in Israel of being a ‘leftie’. I’m not and never was. I firmly, genuinely, deeply believe in the Greater Eretz Israel in terms of the history of the Jewish people in those territories. But I also believe that sometimes you need to make peace in order to achieve something historical. To do that you have to make concessions, and you can only concede something that is yours. So on territory, I don’t say they’re not ours, if I did I don’t concede. I can only concede if I think it’s ours but I’m willing to pull out for the sake of something greater.

Q: With Gaza, do you believe it needs to be opened up, when it’s safe to do so?

A: Yes, of course

Q: What do you make of Omer Bar-Lev and his plan to develop Gaza in a series of confidence-building measures leading to demilitarisation?

A: Omer Bar-Lev is a good man, a former soldier and son of one of the greatest heroes of Israel, Chaim Bar-Lev. I have a lot of respect for him, but he thinks in purely military terms because this is the way he was brought up. I don’t know that he have to start with some conditions that must be met by the other side before, that will not work. We have to take the risks to start, to move forward rapidly and forcefully. Why? Because we are strong. We are strong. We are so much stronger than any of our opponents, stronger than all of them combined, that we can take the risk. What, is Gaza an existential threat to Israel? No. It’s certainly inconvenient. It’s dangerous to the lives of individuals living next to the border, and we are absolutely right to take the necessary measures to prevent them from entering Israel, or to reach out to anyone engaged in terror who is trying to hit Israeli citizens, no question. But is this an existential threat to Israel that we can’t cope with? It’s ridiculous. They should have a deep-water harbour in Gaza. We should help them open up. Yes, there is a risk that they will try to smuggle arms, but we have ways of knowing and taking care of it. When they sent rockets to Israeli cities, we had to hit them in Gaza, just as we had to hit Lebanon, and no-one in the international community questioned our right to do it. The criticism was whether we used excessive measures.

Q: When the rockets were fired and Israel hit back, you said you wanted to hit back ‘disproportionately’…

A: No I didn’t say it, the Chief of Staff said it, but I’m ready to accept it

Q: OK, so my question is this: do you think Israel must always hit back disproportionately, in order to deter future attacks?

A: Disproportionately doesn’t mean shooting 60 civilians flying the kites, or trying to cross the fence without success. Is this the only possible way of reacting? I’m not certain. Is this the best way for the overall impact of what we do? I’m not certain. If the outcome of this is united criticism from the international community and condemnation of Israel everywhere, then maybe we should think if this is the only way to react, or whether there are other ways. I think there are other ways. I mean, we’re talking about some kites – what’s the big deal? Kites are threatening Israel, the most innovative country in the world? The most high-tech country in the world can’t find a way to deal with kites, other than to shoot people with snipers? I’m not certain. It must be carefully examined, but I have my doubts, and I voiced them. Of course I agree we must stop them. How we stop them is the issue.

Q: Were you negotiating peace today, would you talk to Hamas, given that they seem to be the biggest Palestinian party these days?

A: I don’t know if they’re the biggest. They’re certainly the most provocative and aggressive. When I was prime minister, together with the French president Jacques  , we drafted what turned out to be the three principles of the Quartet about negotiating with Hamas. If Hamas is willing to negotiate with Israel and make peace with Israel, this means they accept that Israel is an independent state that must be reckoned with. If they accept all the agreements signed in the past as part of this framework, then why not negotiate with them? It’s not enough that I say I am ready to negotiate with them, they have to accept that Israel is an independent state in boundaries that must be negotiated but that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. If they do, the question becomes ‘why not negotiate with them?’

Jacques Chirac

Q: As prime minister you took Israel to war in Lebanon in 2006, fighting Hezbollah. Today we see a strengthened Hezbollah and an active Iran. Is another war coming?

A: To ignore the possibility of war in the Middle East is to not be tuned to reality, so no, I don’t rule out the possibility, but do I give it a high probability? No. I think Hezbollah learned a lesson which has been deeply absorbed in their hearts and minds. In the last 12 years, they didn’t fire one single shot at Israel from the Lebanese side, despite endless military attacks by Israel in different parts of Lebanon. They never once hit back, they never initiated anything, they didn’t try to kidnap one Israeli soldier, which they tried to do on a weekly basis in the past. This is the greatest strategic achievement of any Israeli war since 1948. There never was 12 years of complete silence of one section of the Israeli border where we were fighting with our enemies.

Q: But the Iranians are there now…

A: True, but the Iranians are also learning the realities of the Middle East in a way that they may not have anticipated. The fact is we were bombing their bases, which I completely support. Israel cannot and will not allow an expanding Iranian military presence near our borders, there is no question about it. Russia also knows it, Putin understands it, and I think in due course he will make sure it doesn’t happen.

Q: What do you make of Putin?

A: He wants to be the power broker and the absence of an American presence allows him to be, so it has to go through Putin, right or wrong, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. The Russians acquiesce when it comes to Israel stopping the Iranians from expanding. They haven’t stopped us. Every now and then we are a little dismayed by the Russians, but overall it’s good. We must understand that Vladimir Putin was not elected to lead Western interests, or Israel or any European country, so what exactly do you want from him? I had lots of discussions with him about this issue. He used to say to me ‘I will never ever allow Israel to be in existential danger, but don’t get me wrong, I will not give up anything where I have influence protecting Russian interests.’ So don’t expect him to compete with Trump to be Israel’s best friend, it won’t happen. He is the president of Russia. Can we talk to him? Yes, and we do, and thank God, because there was a time when Russia was active in the Middle East and we didn’t have an embassy there, or representatives, and couldn’t go to Russia to speak to them. Now it’s different. Is it perfect? Does Putin behave like he’s a member of the Zionist Congress? Not yet. Maybe he will. Assuming not, as long as we can find ways to talk with him and sort out any differences, we don’t have to be overly concerned. Yes, I do think that the situation will continue to be volatile and shaky, but I think he will stop short of allowing a military confrontation between us and Iran or us and Hezbollah. And I think the Iranians and Hezbollah will be very mindful and wary of military confrontation with Israel after 2006 and they will be very careful not to get into this again.

Q: Hezbollah’s militia appears to be far more powerful than the Lebanese national army. Was it always the case?

A: Yes. It’s maybe stronger now than it was before because other powers in Lebanon – Christian and so on – have shrunk. But Hezbollah suffered a great deal in the war against ISIS in Syria so they need a period of recuperation. The question is not whether they have missiles. Of course they have, long-range and short-range, perhaps more accurate now than they had in 2006. The question is did they lose their desire to use them? I think they did. In 2006 they had an easy finger on the trigger. Now they are much more restrained.

Hezbollah supporters in Beruit

Q: I want to ask about you now, personally. You came out of jail a year ago. You’ve written a book and you argue that there was an extreme right-wing conspiracy against you

A: That’s right, that’s what it was

Q: Well put it in your own words. What happened?

A: There were two efforts made at the same time and they coincided. On the right-wing side there was an enormous effort, financed by rich Jews in America…

Q: Adelson?

A: 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 of close to a billion dollars, Israel Hayom, for one purpose: to put me down and bring Bibi up. And it worked! That’s number one. There were many other efforts and I bring some evidence in my book which was published just a while ago. Private detectives used to call people and ask them to incriminate me – those who used to work for me, with me, near me, in the City Hall, in the ministries – offering them millions of dollars for incriminating information. There are tapes that show it! This was part of the demonstrations against me, demonstrations of discontent after the war in Lebanon, which is now almost universally accepted as a great strategic success. At that time 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. I write about it. That was one thing. The other thing was fear of some changes in policy by the minister of justice, Professor Daniel Friedmann, appointed by me. He is one of the most outstanding personalities I’ve ever met – an Israel Prize laureate, one of the most distinguished jurists in the world, admired everywhere, he even turned down an invitation to be a Supreme Court judge. This man was declared an enemy of the system, and they were very active and aggressive in pursuing every possible avenue to put him down and put me down with him, that was clear. For two and a half years now, there is an investigation into Netanyahu, going on and on and on and on, everyone knows everything about everything, it’s all been published time and again, and they are still hesitating from taking any actions. But they interviewed me for one hour, and after just one hour they decided to have preliminary testimony and a public hearing, demanding that I sit on the bench like an indicted person, to face a state witness, while I’m serving as prime minister, even though there was not even a decision to indict me! The whole attitude of the prosecution was inspired by a desire to get rid of me at any cost. While now the attitude is entirely different, at that time I was perceived by many of these guys as an enemy that had to be disposed of.

Olmert in court in 2015

Q: From abroad, it appears that the Israeli judicial system is quite independent, despite the Attorney-General being appointed by the prime minister. Is it not?

A: I can say only this: in the entire time I was prime minister, never did I meet with the Attorney-General, but it is said that this Attorney-General met the current prime minister eight times, at a time of intense investigations against the prime minister conducted by the Attorney-General. So it’s a matter of standards. One has, maybe others don’t, I don’t know. Every second that I was prime minister was examined and there was no convictions or indictments relating to this. The things I was indicted for relates to ten years before. In the final analysis, after all the accusations, I was convicted for accepting NIS 60,000 as a political contribution that never went to my pocket, at a time when I had to cover political debts. It was proved in court that I never saw, that no-one ever saw a cheque, any money, anything. It was all based on the testimony of a state witness who died before he could be cross-examined, but the court approved his statement anyway. So, whatever.

Q: Do you think Netanyahu will end up in court too?

A: I wish he would rapidly step outside politics because of his politics, not because of anything else. I don’t wish him anything personal.

Q: But do you think he will end up in court?

A: I don’t know. I prefer not to say anything about that.

Q: OK, final question: I saw that you have asked for your criminal record to be erased. Is that so you can step back into Israeli politics?

A: No, it means first of all that I want justice to be accomplished. And the rest? Let’s wait for the future.

Q: But you’re a natural politician…

A: 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 people in Israel miss. I have experience that hardly any Israeli has, elected nine times to parliament, twice as mayor of Jerusalem, and also elected 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.

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