‘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…

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