The Time Has Come to Say These Things’

On the eve of the Jewish New Year, Israel’s most popular daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, published an extended interview of lame-duck prime minister Ehud Olmert by journalists Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer. Olmert is a former mayor of Jerusalem (1993–2003), member of the Knesset, and cabinet-level official. In 2005, he left the right-wing Likud party and joined the Kadima party, a centrist alliance formed by then prime minister Ariel Sharon in the wake of Israel’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip. Olmert, who served as deputy prime minister in the Kadima-led government, assumed the premiership in 2006 when Sharon suffered a stroke. He announced his intention to resign this July amid a growing corruption scandal and a dismal public approval rating that never recovered from his failed 2006 war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

On September 21, upon tendering his official resignation, Olmert became head of an interim government and will hold that position until a new prime minister is sworn in. Under Israeli law, the prime minister–designate, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, had forty-two days from the resignation to form a workable ruling coalition. On October 26, Livni announced that she had failed to do so. A general election will take place next year.

The following are excerpts from the Yedioth interview, which Olmert gave hours after handing in his letter of resignation.

—Avi Steinberg

Yedioth Ahronoth: You must have done some soul-searching before your resignation?

Ehud Olmert: At the moment, I’d like to do some soul-searching on behalf of the nation of Israel…. In a few years, my grandchildren will ask what their grandfather did, what kind of country we have bequeathed them. I said it five years ago, in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, and I’ll say it to you today: we have a window of opportunity—a short amount of time before we enter an extremely dangerous situation—in which to take a historic step in our relations with the Palestinians and a historic step in our relations with the Syrians. In both instances, the decision we have to make is the decision we’ve spent forty years refusing to look at with our eyes open.

We must make these decisions, and yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves, “Yes, this is what we must do.” We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage [of territory elsewhere]—without this, there will be no peace.

Yedioth Ahronoth: Including Jerusalem?

Ehud Olmert: Including Jerusalem—with, I’d imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy/historical sites. Whoever talks seriously about security in Jerusalem, and about not wanting tractors and bulldozers to crush the legs of his best friends—as happened to a close friend of mine, who lost a leg when a terrorist ran him over on a tractor—must be willing to relinquish parts of Jerusalem. [In July 2008, Jerusalem saw two separate attacks involving construction vehicles operated by Arab East Jerusalemites.]

Whoever wants to maintain control over the entire city will have to absorb 270,000 Arabs into the borders of Israel proper. This won’t do. We need to make a decision. This decision is difficult, awful, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our deepest yearnings, our collective memories, and the prayers of the nation of Israel for the past two thousand years.

I was the first person who wanted to maintain Israeli control over the entire city. I confess. I’m not trying to retroactively justify what I’ve done for the past thirty-five years. For a significant portion of those years I wasn’t ready to contemplate the depth of this reality.

Yedioth Ahronoth: If you could continue your administration, do you think that you would be able to reach agreements?

Ehud Olmert: I think we’re very close to reaching agreements.

Yedioth Ahronoth: With both the Palestinians and the Syrians?

Ehud Olmert: Yes, also with the Syrians. What we need first and foremost is to make a decision. I’d like to know if there’s a serious person in the State of Israel who believes that we can make peace with the Syrians without, in the end, giving up the Golan Heights.

Yedioth Ahronoth: It seems that political leaders in Israel always reach this conclusion only when they themselves are no longer in a position to make this decision.

Ehud Olmert: Not in my case. I reached this conclusion when I was still able to do something about it. I established contacts with the Syrians in February 2007, long before the police opened investigations on me. And I engaged in them quietly. Throughout that period I made many efforts, sent envoys all over the place, and had various people working secretly on my behalf to convince the Syrians that I wanted serious talks with them. Today we’ve arrived at the point at which we must ask ourselves whether we really want to make peace or not.

I’m not saying that this is a simple question. One might argue, ostensibly with good reason, that, look, for thirty-five years, since the Yom Kippur War, we’ve lived on the Golan Heights without any violation of the cease-fire; and there’s none of the day-to-day friction with a civilian population, as in the territories—so why not carry on?

Yedioth Ahronoth: Based on what you have said, you seem to think that the guilt falls entirely on [Israel].

Ehud Olmert: No. Our burden is ours; their burden belongs to them. I’m not suggesting we make peace with Syria simply by surrendering the Golan Heights. The Syrians know well what they must surrender to get the Golan. They must give up their connections with Iran, such as they are, and their connections with Hezbollah; they must cease funding terrorism, Hamas, al-Qaeda, the holy war in Iraq. They know. These things have been made clear to them.

Were a regional war to break out in the next year or two and were we to enter into a military confrontation with Syria, I have no doubt that we’d defeat them soundly. We are stronger than they. Israel is the strongest country in the Middle East. We could contend with any of our enemies or against all of our enemies combined and win. The question that I ask myself is, what happens when we win? First of all, we’d have to pay a painful price.

And after we paid the price, what would we say to them? “Let’s talk.” And what would the Syrians say to us? “Let’s talk about the Golan Heights.”

So, I ask: Why enter a war with the Syrians, full of losses and destruction, in order to achieve what might be achieved without paying such a heavy price?

…In the absence of peace, the probability of war is always much greater. A prime minister must ask himself where to best direct his efforts. Are his efforts directed toward making peace or are they directed constantly toward making the country stronger and stronger and stronger in order to win a war?

…What I’m saying here has never been said by a leader of Israel. But the time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table.

I read the reports of our generals and I say, “how have they not learned a single thing?” Once, a very senior official told me, “They’re still living in the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign.” With them it’s all about tanks, about controlling territories or controlled territories, holding this or that hill. But these things are worthless.

…The true threat we are facing today in the north, south, and east is from missiles and rockets. We will need to answer these threats but we will not find such answers within a range of two hundred meters.

…Our goal should be, for the first time, to designate a final and exact borderline between us and the Palestinians so that the entire world, the United States, the UN, and Europe can say, “These are the borders of the State of Israel, we recognize them, and we will anchor them with formal resolutions in the major international bodies. These are the recognized borders of Israel and these are the recognized borders of the State of Palestine.”

…Who seriously thinks that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, this will make a difference for Israel’s basic security?

…Is the absence of a resolution between us and the Palestinians the result of Israel’s intransigence? No. Let there be no doubt in this matter. I regret to say that the Palestinians lack the necessary courage, power, inner strength, will, and enthusiasm. If we don’t reach a solution, I’m in no way prepared to lay the blame on Israel. The blame rests first and foremost with the other side.

I would like to learn from my own mistakes. I hadn’t seen this before and I’m not trying to justify myself. Exactly thirty years ago, when Menachem Begin returned from Camp David, I spoke out against [the agreement he made there] and I voted against it. I confess; I’m not trying to hide or obscure that.

What was Menachem Begin’s genius?… He started from the end. He began by saying, “I am ready to pull out of the entire Sinai—now, let us negotiate.”

…When I look back to the prime ministers who preceded me, Arik Sharon, Bibi Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, I can say that each made a step in the right direction but that at a certain point in time, at a particular juncture at which a decision was necessary, the decision did not come….

Yedioth Ahronoth: Israel’s deterrent threat is not deterring Iran from developing a nuclear arms program; [the Iranians] appear to be on the verge of attaining nuclear capability.

Ehud Olmert: There is a major difference in our approach to the Iranian issue and our approach to the Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese issue. These are our immediate neighbors. The way we deal with them is not the way we can deal with Iran.

Iran is a major power that constitutes a serious threat to the international community. And it is the international community that is most responsible for dealing with the Iranian situation. One senses a megalomania and a loss of proportion in the things said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of scale.

The assumption that if America, Russia, China, England, and Germany don’t know how to deal with the Iranians, but we, the Israelis, will know, and that we’ll do something, we’ll act, is an example of this loss of proportions.

…One day the whole story of the Lebanon war [of 2006] will be told and the picture will look completely different. I am the only one who hasn’t spoken about it. Bogie Yaalon [Former Lieutenant General and Chief of the General Staff Moshe Yaalon], who doesn’t know what happened, has spoken. The military brass, the brigadier generals, majors, and lieutenant colonels, each saw only his own narrow slice of things. The person who knows the whole story, from beginning to end, has been silent. Thus the picture has been distorted.

Yedioth Ahronoth: Do certain extremely harsh statements that have been coming from members of the Knesset indicate a new lack of esteem for the office of the prime minister?

Ehud Olmert: I will never forget an encounter I had with Sharon on the evening that I was to fly to the US for a secret meeting with Condoleezza Rice. This was shortly after the August 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip. I saw Sharon immediately after he met with the Foreign and Defense staffs. Sharon was paler than I had ever seen him. I asked my friend Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s chief of staff, what had happened. He said that Arik had returned from the committee, where Knesset members Uzi Landau and Effi Eitam had said to him, “you’re a gangster,” “you’re a criminal,” “you’re despicable,” “you’re a thief.” Sharon is an older man and not in great shape—a number of weeks later he was through—and he was in complete shock.

This phenomenon is not new. It started on the eve of the Rabin murder and it brought about [that] murder….

Yedioth Ahronoth: Now that you have resigned, do you have a different take on the war? Are there things you’d do differently? Are you more suspicious of [Israel’s] military leadership?

Ehud Olmert: The Lebanon war will go down in history as the first war in which the military leadership understood that classic warfare has become obsolete. Only narrow-minded Bogie Yaalon could believe that had we entered Lebanon with the entire army things would have ended differently.

…But this was the only war that ended with a political resolution. Since then there hasn’t been a single shot fired in that area. If we knew how to create such an arrangement in the south today [i.e., in Gaza], our fighting forces would certainly support it…. But the true lesson is what I have said before, that in contemporary wars the home front is the front, the home front is engaged in battle.

—Translated from the Hebrew by Avi Steinberg