A Conversation With Ehud Olmert

Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Ehud Olmert

Former Prime Minister, Israel; Former Mayor of Jerusalem

Ethan Bronner

Senior Editor, International, Bloomberg; Former Jerusalem Bureau Chief, New York Times

BRONNER: Good morning. We want to thank Prime Minister Olmert for coming today and thank all of you as well. We will speak for half an hour. This is on the record. And then at 8:30 the members’ questions will come. So there’s a lot to talk about.

Why don’t we start, Ehud, with your meeting yesterday with President Mahmoud Abbas? On the outskirts of the U.N., you were with him. So what was the essence of what you said to one another? Why are you here with him?

OLMERT: May I ask a question that you didn’t ask?

BRONNER: (Laughs.) I’ve been interviewing this guy for a long time, and it always goes like this. What?

OLMERT: Why do you go there to a meeting in the first place? Which is what so many people asked me in Israel. Why the heck we have to do with Abu Mazen?

BRONNER: That was—that’s a version of the question I just asked.

OLMERT: All right.

BRONNER: Go for it. (Laughter.)

OLMERT: There was—there was a party two weeks ago at the White House which was heartwarming for many of us Israelis, those who are admirers of Trump, those who are not such big admirers of the president. But it was quite unusual, and quite extraordinary to have the American president standing in the East Wing of the White House with lots of Jews, supporters sitting there, and talking with such dedication and commitment to the state of Israel, which was really quite extraordinary even in the history of this place which already have seen some, you know, events regarding the state of Israel.

There was only one thing missing, I think. Where were the Palestinians? I mean, what are we talking about? This is a piece which is planned to be between Israel and the Palestinians, not between Israel and America. Israel and America are doing very well. I think the relations are wonderful. There is a very, very devoted and dedicated president that likes Israel and supports Israeli genuinely. And—but we’re talking about making peace between Israel and the Palestinians. So where are the Palestinians?

Now, I think that the Palestinians ought to be part of this game. Without them, there will not be peace. There will be ceremonies, there will be parties, there will statements, but peace that we want to achieve will never take place. And so I was planning to go to America anyway, and this idea was suggested, that I meet with Abu Mazen. And I said, naturally. Abu Mazen is the only partner that we have if we want to talk with the Palestinians. Let’s say we want to implement and make a genuine serious effort to implement the president’s plan, OK? Regardless now of some of the weaknesses of this plan, which I will maybe touch upon later. But assuming that this is—this is it, and we want to implement it, who will we negotiate with if not the person who is the president of the Palestinian Authority. And he says he’s prepared to negotiate with us.

BRONNER: So we’ll get into the details in a minute, but actually on point, in fact, President Abbas has said: No. This is not a basis for me to negotiate. No. And the argument in Israel, the overwhelming view in Israel at the moment, is that in fact he is not a partner, and here is further evidence that he’s not a partner. Did you try to persuade him to speak differently about this plan?

OLMERT: I think to be honest with what he says, he didn’t say that he is against negotiations with Israel. In fact, he said the opposite.

BRONNER: But using this as a basis he said no.

OLMERT: He said—he said that he does not accept the plan as it was prepared, as it was presented. OK, that’s true. No question about it. What I tried to do yesterday, and to a certain degree I think I may have succeeded—not as much as I wanted—is to share with him my perception that it’s better for the potential process that may take place in the future for the Palestinians to refrain from being again anti-everything, but rather to say what they accept and to see if there is an option through this corridor to enter into a more meaningful process. So I say to him, look, at the end of the day I’m not sure who is for this plan and who is against it. You appear to be against it, but you are in favor of a two-state solution, which is a major part of this plan. Now, Netanyahu seems to be entirely for it, but he is absolutely against a two-state solution. So why would you not say that you prepared to pursue it within the framework of this concept of a two-state solution?

So that the position that you express will not be under. And there are many, many Israelis that make—there are lots of Israelis, by the way, who are absolutely happy with the permission of the United States—first of all, in the first step, the earlier step of the administration that recognized the legality of the settlements, which is opposed to everything that every single president since 1967 ever said. There was not one president that said that the settlements are legal. I remember talking with my good friend the former President George W. And I tried to share with him some of my concerns about the possible agreement that we were close to conclude with Abu Mazen. And I said to the president: It will cost you a lot of money. You know, I think in my estimate it may be $50 billion. And he said, are you crazy? My friend, why should it cost me so much? I said, look, you know, we’ll have to evacuate all these territories, and then we will have to build a—Negev, the south part of Israel, and so on and so forth.

And the guy who never said no to me, and was really a very genuine and warm friend as a president and on a personal basis, looked me in the eyes and said: My buddy, I’m not going to spend one penny to compensate for the cost of illegal settlements that you guys built for so many years. This was Bush, who was a great friend of Israel. Now came President Trump and says: Settlements are legal. So this was a preliminary, before the plan was presented. Now there is a plan which talks about the possibility of Israeli—applying the Israeli law on all of the settlements and making them part of the state of Israel. So this is something that obviously the Palestinians can’t accept. But there is the other thing, which is a two-state solution. And I’m not certain that the Israelis are prepared to accept it. So there is room here for Abu Mazen to decide what does he want to focus on—to focus on the negative, or to focus on the positive?

BRONNER: But so far he’s focused on the negative. You’re saying you urged him to focus on the positive, and you think you somewhere but not that far?

OLMERT: Unfortunately—

BRONNER: I mean, the other thing about this plan, it seems to me, is that in many ways these—the words it uses about settlement freeze, and Jerusalem as the capital for a Palestinian state, and a two-state solution, is in some fashion—it uses words that you, when you negotiated with Abu Mazen, had. And it has sort of drained the words of their actual meaning.

OLMERT: Yes. That was the initial—(laughter)—no, that was the initial—that was the initial impression. In the first week when Netanyahu immediately after the ceremony in the White House declared publicly that he’s going to in the next session of the Cabinet Sunday—this was Tuesday in New York—in Washington. Sunday he is going to pass a resolution in the Israeli Cabinet to immediately annex the territories. And then Jared Kushner and subsequently David Friedman, the ambassador, said: Hey, hang on just a minute, no. No. We will not recognize it. Hey, stop. You want to do this? It has to be part of the whole thing.

So, number one, it’s not—it turns out maybe as a result of some of the reactions given by the Palestinians or maybe some of their potential supporters, the Arab countries, which are very important in this equation, and they changed their attitude, number one. Number two, the issue of Jerusalem is very interesting. It says two contradictory things in the same sentence, almost. It says that Jerusalem, the united and undivided capital, will remain the capital of the state of Israel. And when the Palestinian state will be created, East Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state. Now, I don’t understand. I mean, what is undivided Jerusalem and the East of Jerusalem will be the capital of—

BRONNER: So we know the answer to that. It’s a portion of the Shu’fat refugee camp and Abu Dis.

OLMERT: I’m not certain about this, because I want to remind you two things. Again, at the end of this meeting these guys are going to say, what? We didn’t know that there is an admirer for Trump in Israel. (Laughs.) But, look, Trump said half a year ago that there would be certain element in the program that he prefers which will not be very pleasant and very easy for the Israelis, but they will have to settle with it because of so many things that I did to them. They will have to accept it. That was number one. Number two, when he decided to move the American embassy to Jerusalem he said that we recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and its borders will be determined in negotiations.

Which meant that he recognizes Jerusalem, but effectively he means West Jerusalem. And that somehow is—

BRONNER: But if you look at the plan, the plan suggests that the vast portion of what we think of in East Jerusalem will still be under Israeli sovereignty.

OLMERT: And that is also—OK, listen, of course this will be the—

BRONNER: It’s what it says. He also wants to incorporate the two (hundred thousand) or three hundred thousand Palestinian residents as citizens.

OLMERT: That is not what I want. That is not what I want. (Laughs.)

BRONNER: OK, so let’s spend a minute on Jerusalem, Ehud. The distinction between the plan that you and Abu Mazen came up with ten years ago or so and the one that’s on the table now. What were you going to do with Jerusalem?

OLMERT: I’ll say it in a very simple way: All of the villages which are now known to be part of Jerusalem—which are not really part of Jerusalem, have never been part of the history of the Jerusalem, are not associated in the collective memory of the Jewish people, in the history of the Jewish people, in any form or manner as part of Jerusalem—like Isawiyah, like Jabal Mukaber, like Shuafat, like Beit Hanina, like Cheik Jourakh (ph). All of these are our villages. And I say to Abu Mazen, take it. Take it. One thing, as a former mayor of Jerusalem I know that there are about 330,000 Palestinians living in those villages. Why do we have to endanger the Jewish majority in Jerusalem because they are allowed to vote in the municipal elections. So there is a likelihood that in a few years’ time the majority of the people living in Jerusalem will be Arabs, and they will vote for an Arab mayor, a Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem. This is not precisely the ultimate dream of the Jewish state, that Jerusalem will be governed by a Palestinian.

So what exactly do we lose by getting rid of all these places which had no meaning in Jewish history, which doesn’t strike any nerve—any sensitive nerve in the Jewish tradition? Take it! The question—the main question, as far as I’m concerned, in Jerusalem is the holy basin, because Shu-fat and all the other places are really unimportant.

BRONNER: So what did you do with the holy basin?

OLMERT: I proposed that the holy basin will have no exclusive sovereignty of one nation. And the reason is that however important and significant the holy basin for us, I don’t think we can ignore the fact that it is extremely important for billions of Christians. The most important Christian church in the whole world is not the Vatican, is not any other church any other place in the world. It’s the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the old city of Jerusalem. So there is a sensitive issue here. And then, of course, the mosque. The mosque is not the most important site for Muslims, but it is one of the most important sites for the Muslims. Now, if someone believes that there can be peace with an exclusive sovereignty of Israel on all of these places then, you know, he dreams. That will never be.

BRONNER: But that someone seems to be President Trump. Am I misunderstanding something?

OLMERT: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. (Laughter.) I don’t know.

BRONNER: Isn’t that what it says?

OLMERT: You wanted—of all the people here, I will be the only one who understand the dreams of President Trump?

BRONNER: Well, it’s written down in his—in his plan. (Laughter.)

OLMERT: I don’t know. Yes, it’s written, but it also has been spelled out time and again that this is the platform for further negotiations.

BRONNER: The basis, OK.

OLMERT: The basis for further negotiations. So what—

BRONNER: But it’s his suggestion.

OLMERT: So, yeah, it is my suggestion, negotiate it. So I don’t know how much he will stick to each one of these points. What I suggested, by the way, which I think is the most practical and workable solution, is to appoint by the United Nations, and the General Assembly, and the Security Council, that there will be a trust of five nations—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinians. Each has a significance or some kind of status in Jerusalem. The Saudis, the Jordanians, which are also part of the agreement between Israel and Jordan is that the Jordanians have a status in the old city. And the Palestinians, obviously, as the residents. Israel and the United States. It will be free for all, you know, believers to practice their religion in the city of Jerusalem, but it will have no exclusive sovereignty. I don’t think that we lose anything.

And by the way, to the extent to which Israel practically controls those sites was manifested when we wanted to install—I don’t know if you recall this—


OLMERT: A couple of years ago magnetometers to just check those who are coming on Fridays to the prayers at the mosque. And this was a big statement by the prime minister: We will, you know, show—we will prove how much we control the Temple Mount. And King Abdullah II threatened to call back his ambassador to Amman if this will be done, and within a few hours all the magnetometers were removed from the place.

BRONNER: But, so what you’re talking about, which is the sensitivity for Jordan of all of this makes me want to ask you about what this plan would do for Jordan. It’s interesting that Jordan was not a supporter of the plan. It publicly stayed away from saying anything nice about the plan. In fact, it seems quite nervous about it. Why?

OLMERT: Jordan, one should remember, is about, let’s say, conservatively, 60 percent of its population are Palestinians. There is an enormous, enormous sensitivity and fear that anything that goes beyond a certain limit will create a very serious crisis within Jordan. And the king is enormously sensitive for it. I mean, it’s not that they were not happy with it. There is a certain danger—I mean, a serious danger that if there will be a one-sided unilateral annexation of the east that Jordan will sever its relations with Israel, will cancel the peace treaty, whatever. I don’t know.

Now, I will say something, which in response to a question that you are going to ask. (Laughter.)

BRONNER: Welcome to my world.

OLMERT: Yeah. No, one of the most sensitive issues, the one that was—that seemed to have been endorsed by everyone, was that Israel wants to have a military presence in the Jordan Valley. And this is a very popular slogan in Israel as well. Now, when I was negotiating with Abbas and with his people at the very early stage they said: We want a Palestinian state, but we want to make it to impact you with one thing that must be remembered: We will never, ever agree to have a state which will not have the same ingredients of sovereignty that every sovereign state has. So if you guys think that you will be able to have an Israeli army in the territories which are part of the Palestinian state, there will never be an agreement. And they referred explicitly to the Jordan Valley.

So I think about how am I going to do with it? I went to the neighbor, to King Abdullah, because I talked with him. And this is not a secret. You can read it also in the book of Condoleezza Rice when she wrote her memories about that period. And I told him: Listen, you know, we—you want, as I want to have an agreement on the basis of the two state, because at that we make a very important contribution to stability and in Jordan. There will not be a state without—with Israelis present in the Jordan Valley. There will not be an agreement from my side if I will not be able to provide complete security that will prevent the passage of people from one side to the other side, because that can upset all the balances that exist there.

So will you agree to have an international force on your side of the Jordan River? And the answer was positive. And Condi Rice writes in her book that when I told her, she went to the king to check with him. And he said yes. So number one, there is a solution to the issue of the Jordan Valley that does not require the annexation if one wants an agreement, OK?

BRONNER: I understand. Let me ask you something a bit broader, which is when you were negotiating with President Abbas and President Obama was coming into office, there was a widespread view that the significance of this conflict between the Palestinians and Israel went way beyond what mattered between the two people, that it actually affected the stability of the entire region.

Later, a year or so later, when the Arab Spring broke out, the suggestion was that the problems in the region actually have very little to do with Israel and Palestinians. Then the shale revolution occurred, which meant the United States cared less about the oil in the region. And then the last decade one of the reasons that this administration has sort of ignored the Palestinians is that there is a sense that they don’t actually matter for regional stability. That, yes, one should do right by them, but it isn’t any longer a core interest of the United States to do right by them. What do you think?

OLMERT: I think that—by the way, all of these things happened in the last decade. OK, all of these things. OK?

BRONNER: Yes, precisely. All of them happened in the last decade, after your negotiations. And, of course, another couple of hundred thousand settlers, just to make it a little bit earlier. So the question is, the things that you wanted to do, are they still doable? And do they still matter to this country and to the world the way it seemed they mattered then?

OLMERT: I’ll give you a prediction. I’ll take a risk because, you know, life goes on and maybe it will—you know, before my next breakfast at the Council on Foreign Relations I’ll be proved completely wrong, but I’m not certain about this. I think that all of the moderate Sunnite Arab countries are anxious to have relations with Israel. They are anxious to have public diplomatic cooperation with Israel. They respect us and they say they even admire the achievements of the state of Israel. They think that they can rely on the strength of Israel to help stabilize the region. None of them—none of them will take one step forward unless Israel stops to be an occupier of Palestinians and Muslims—

BRONNER: But they have taken little steps forward in the last few years.

OLMERT: They made many steps underground.

BRONNER: Somewhat underground. The UAE was present at this particular ceremony.

OLMERT: They were present. Did they not sign the statement of the Arab countries in Cairo?

BRONNER: They’ve learned to work both sides of the room, yes.

OLMERT: I can tell you something. I think I know what the leaders think, you know.

BRONNER: So you’re saying it’s a sine qua non still.

 OLMERT: And I think that they will not go further into something that will make—will be—will have the impact of an atomic bomb falling on the region, which is to have diplomatic relations. At this point, not only that they don’t want to be seen with us—we have very good relations with al-Sisi, president of Egypt, right? Very good cooperation, believe me. Very effective, every useful cooperation. Will al-Sisi agree to invite the prime minister of Israel to visit Cairo? We have good relations. Will he come to visit Israel? No way. And the same for King Abdullah.

BRONNER: OK, so here’s the second question. Maybe it matters less? From the Israeli perspective, maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s an open relationship, as long as it’s a kind of understated, non-aggression pact with economic and security cooperation. That seems to be the attitude right now.

OLMERT: Presently, unfortunately, I think that this is the idea that runs through the mind of Netanyahu.

BRONNER: So it appears.

OLMERT: So for another month it may represent the thinking of Israel. But in a month’s time, there will be a new prime minister in Israel. And therefore, things will change.

BRONNER: So I’m glad you said that because we only have five minutes before we turn to the members and I want to ask you about that. So talk for a few minutes—for our remaining few minutes of our conversation, about the Israeli political scene. What do you think will happen in early March? And how do you see this plan playing a role?

OLMERT: I think it’s easier for me to say what will not happen. (Laughter.)


OLMERT: Netanyahu will not be the prime minister. You know, I take, again, a certain risk because it’s just three weeks. It’s too short. But before April, the April elections I said publicly in every possible television station and show, that the outcome of the election will not allow Netanyahu to form a government.

BRONNER: The last April elections. Yeah. Yeah.

OLMERT: Last April elections. And before the September elections, I said publicly that there will be a second round. And after the second round, there will be a third round because Netanyahu will not be able to form a government. So now I’m telling you Netanyahu—

BRONNER: OK, so that’s telling me your prediction. So what’s going to happen?

OLMERT: There will most likely—most likely, I think the chances are that there will be a minority government led by Blue and White or together with Lieberman. This will be a minority government because I don’t think that, taking the Arabs aside, that there will be sixty-one members for this bloc without the Arabs. But I think that the Arabs under those circumstances will be asked politely not to vote for this Cabinet, but also not to vote against it. So there will be a minority, the bigger minority for this bloc over the other bloc, which will allow the creation of a minority government. This government will suffer from major weaknesses because there are lots of divisions within the Blue and White Party itself, and also the combination of Meretz, and Labor, and Lieberman is not the most natural combination in the—in the political environment of Israel.

BRONNER: But do you think it will create an opening for negotiations with the Palestinians? It doesn’t sound like it.

OLMERT: Not immediately. No, it will change the atmosphere, to start with. I don’t think that any of them will call Abu Mazen a traitor, and a murderer, and a terrorist. He is not. And one of the reasons why I took the risk of exposing myself to all these incitements which are taking place now in Israel against me by Netanyahu and his clan, I think that it was important to remind the international community and also the Israeli electorate that there is someone who says that he’s opposed to terror, that he’s prepared to fight against terror, that he cooperates with the Israeli security services to prevent terror. And he’s a potential partner. If not him, then who? The Hamas?

So I think it was important to say it. Unfortunately, for the time being my voice is the only voice of some volume that repeats it. But I thought that it was very important. That’s why I wanted to see him and to also try and—at the time that we meet, also to perhaps mellow a little bit some of the expressions of the Palestinians.

BRONNER: And my last question, before we turn to the members, which is that in this plan there’s a requirement that Hamas be disarmed and also that basically the Palestinian Authority is turned into a kind of Jeffersonian democracy before it can have statehood. In your plan, or in your view, are these appropriate requirements? Did the disarmament of Hamas play a role in yours?

OLMERT: Absolutely legitimate expectations. But requirements as preconditions is something else. You know, I’m very much in favor of disarming the Hamas. You know, why not a big empire of the Middle East which can easily destroy Iran, you know, when it wants to—why not start with disarming Hamas? Why do you expect Abu Mazen, who is not allowed to have one tank and one missile, do you expect him to do what you are not prepared to do yourself? So that’s, you know, a little bit unrealistic. And it’s true about the—some of the other requirements. They are definitely legitimate expectations that within the framework of a peace—comprehensive peace agreement, permanent agreement between us and the Palestinians, there will not be terror, and there will not be, you know, all these other things.

BRONNER: But as prerequisites they’re a problem?

OLMERT: Yeah, but to make it a precondition before negotiations start, to expect that the Palestinians, which are hardly, you know, catch thieves and criminals in the streets, that they will be able to disarm the Hamas, something that Israel has been trying to do in the last decade with a prime minister that has made the destruction of Hamas as the banner of his government—that we can’t do it, that’s a little bit exaggerated I think.

BRONNER: OK. We’re going to turn to you guys. There’s a mic. Just tell us who you are and have as brief a question as you can. And we’ll start with Martin (sp), please.

Q: Thanks, Ethan. Prime Minister, welcome to the Council—back to the Council. It’s great to have you here.

Two issues that I wanted you to address, if you would, in terms of your own negotiations. Natan Sharansky’s quoted in the—has a piece in the Wall Street Journal today saying that the core—at the core of your negotiations was your demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which Abu Mazen would not do. So I wonder if you could address this whole issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. And the second one is a little bit more arcane, but I think it’s important, is the issue of land swaps and population swaps, and how you dealt with the issue of land swaps in comparison to the way the Trump plans deals with it.

OLMERT: Yeah. Natan is wrong, is incorrect. I never made it as a precondition with Abu Mazen. In fact, most of the Israelis say, do we need that someone else will define what the nature of Israel is? We define Israel as a Jewish state, then this is a Jewish state. So why do we need to condition the entire agreement on whether they will recognize us as a Jewish state? We are a Jewish state.

But the truth is that Abu Mazen, I don’t think he will have a real problem doing it. Number one, not as a precondition, but maybe the last concession that he will give in—when we reach that point of concluding a deal, will be to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. And I think that the way that the agreement will be phrased will inherently include this recognition, because it will be an agreement between Israel, the state, to the Jewish people and Palestine, the state, to the Palestinian people, and on and on. So this will be an agreement between the Jewish state and the Palestinian state. And that will be the recognition that we are looking for.

BRONNER: So to clarify, it wasn’t a condition of yours, but it was an expectation.

OLMERT: There is an expectation, but it’s a big thing because it didn’t preclude us from reaching an agreement because we were not—we didn’t agree on everything but this, and it remained as an obstacle.

Now, about the swaps of territories, I said—and I said it yesterday in the press conference, I said it I think also earlier at the interview with Christiane Amanpour. I said that the territorial issue that—the territorial solution that I supported was based on the ’67 borders. With minor modifications that means that Israel was supposed to integrate into the state of Israel about 5 percent, 5 ½ percent, 4 ½ percent, that is less important, of the three demographic centers. By the way, an idea which was first raised by President George W. in a letter he sent to Ariel Sharon, the then-prime minister, on the 14th of April 2004. And he said: We have to take into consideration the demographic changes that took place over the last forty-five years. And therefore I—America thinks that in the context of a permanent solution, there ought some of these centers—the three centers that he mentioned, can remain part of the state of Israel in exchange for swaps of territories.

What I proposed for the Palestinians, and I showed it to Abu Mazen in a map that I didn’t give him—I just showed him the map. I was ready to give him if he would have signed the map so that he will not come back to me two weeks or two years later and say, listen, these I already have now give me more. So I said that the territories worth the equivalent of what was to be integrated to the state of Israel from the West Bank was straight along the borderline between Israel and the Palestinian state from north to south. So there were sensitive areas of what Israel used to be that were to be given to them, not just few deserts in the south in the no-man’s land, as perhaps I think is what has been proposed in this new plan.

BRONNER: And the other thing about those land swaps is that all the plans until now imagined, at most, 5 to 8 percent of the West Bank—at most—maybe 2, 3, 4 percent. Now it’s 30-35 percent.

OLMERT: No, what I—what I suggested, and I still feel that it is sufficient, is 4.2 percent. Now, when the president talks, if they mean that the swaps will be the size of territories integrated into Israel, the 30 percent, will have an equivalent of 30 percent from Israel, we have no 6 percent to give them from Israel, pre-’67. Not even 6 percent. I am prepared to reduce it to 4.2 percent, because in the 4.2 percent that—in the three demographic centers, we can relocate all of the settlements and the townships that are now spread all over the West Bank and empty the remaining parts of the West Bank from the presence of Jewish residence, because their continued living in the—in the territories is a prescription for endless confrontations and violent—and terror that will never end.

BRONNER: Which there are supposed to be fifteen enclaves of sovereign Israel.

More questions, please. Sir.

Q: This is an extension of the question about what’s changed in the eleven years since you were in power. And you talk about the Arab position, but I’m interested—saying that, A, I admire your rationality and centrism. But an argument could be made that Israel in the in the Bibi years has moved more to the right, greater nationalism, even religious messianism. And even after he goes, how much of that do you think is going to linger? How much has Israel changed in those eleven years?

OLMERT: Yeah. I’ve been trying to argue for a long time now that the perception that Israel has changed to the right is wrong. Israel hasn’t changed to the right. The last two elections campaign in 2019—the last two elections, the outcome of these two elections did not allow a right-wing party to form a government. That is how strong they became, that they can’t form a government. And now some people say, yes, but Lieberman doesn’t want side with Netanyahu therefore, but he is right. The additional votes that Lieberman received in the September elections are entirely not from the right. They’re all from the center. They’re all from those who sympathize with his opposition to the ultra-orthodox. And they are not right-wing votes.

So basically I don’t think that Israel has changed. I think that there is not—there is a support there—the more or less the same support for the Likud is always around the 23-24 percent. Now, it ought to be reminded to some people that may not always remember the history, the Likud under Menachem Begin received in 1981—a while ago, right—forty-eight seats. Forty-eight seats, Likud itself. In 1998—1988, I’m sorry—the Likud under Yitzhak Shamir—not the most charismatic leader that we ever had, although a formidable character. The man I was privileged to work with very closely for a long time. We received forty-one seats in the Knesset. Forty-one seats. Ariel Sharon in 2003 received as the head of Likud thirty-eight seats. Netanyahu never came close to it.

So that’s how the right wing took over. That’s a misperception. It’s not true. The Likud actually went down. Some of the right-wing parties made up for the loss of Likud, but all together they still didn’t get what at the time of Begin and Shamir we used to have. And I remember it a very personal way, because I was member of the Knesset since 1973. So I was—and in 1973, by the way, Begin—the Likud received thirty-eight seats. I was number thirty-six on the list, so I was elected first time in 1973. So even when we didn’t win the elections, we still had the thirty-eight seats, which is a lot more than Bibi ever received. And the stability of, the loyalty of the voters of Likud is not as it appears by some to be.

The fact is, that in 2006 when I was running and Bibi ran against me as the head of Likud, the number of seats that the Likud got was twelve. So even those who were Likudniks are not so loyal to Likud that they can’t think of voting for another party if there is a party which is attractive enough. And the question is whether Kahol Lavan is sufficiently attractive to pull some of these votes. They are attractive enough to be the largest party in Israel. What we need is that they will be a little more attractive to make the victory more decisive.

BRONNER: The other question is whether Kahol Lavan is actually not itself rather conservative. But the question was to him, not to me.

OLMERT: I didn’t say that—no, I didn’t that he was conservative. I said that—

BRONNER: I’m saying it is.


BRONNER: (Laughs.) The question is not whether Likud is—it’s not that Likud country—

OLMERT: But they are not—they are not liberals.

BRONNER: The left has moved to the center in this country as well, and that’s why there’s validity to the question. But next question, please.

Yes, ma’am, in the back. We can’t hear you.

Q: Thank you. (Speaks in a foreign language.) My name is Nourel (ph).

OLMERT: Nourel (ph)?

Q: Nourel (ph). (Laughter.)

I wanted to ask how the November 2020 elections will affect the U.S.-Israel relations if Trump doesn’t get reelected, and if someone like Bernie wins. Thank you.

OLMERT: Number one, my feeling—I may be wrong—but the feeling right now I think amongst many people that I talk with, what I hear is that they think that it’s more likely to that President Trump will be reelected. So what Trump thinks about Israel we know already. And whether you agree with him or not about his international politics, whether you agree about his style, whether you agree about his manners, you can’t disagree that he is a very, very friendly president to the state of Israel. The way he looks at Israel, the map of interests that he thinks are important for Israel is trying to address himself to these in the most friendly way. So if he will be reelected, his reelection will not make the difference. It’s the one that will not be reelected that will not the difference, and this will happen in Israel.

I think that the relations between Gantz and President Trump will be of an even nature, because of the even nature of these two personalities, Netanyahu and Gantz. But I think that—I think that to the extent that the nature of the relations, the appearance of the relations between Israel and America is important for American politics, at least from March of this year till November of this year, the attitude will continue to be as it is. There will not be any changes from the American project, because I think whoever is the prime minister of Israel, I don’t see that the president of America will have any particular interest in making the appearance of this relationship to be different.

What happens—

BRONNER: You don’t think if the Democrats win—if the Democrats win in November. That’s the question. Will there be a change?

OLMERT: OK, if the Democrats—if the Democrats—I’ll tell you something. On the basis of my—I think of the Democratic Party performance, the Democratic leaders in the last decade, I think that there is only a chance of a change in the—in the music of these relations and in a very significant part of the substance is if Bernie Sanders will become president. And I think that Bernie Sanders will not play the game. But one could ask a legitimate question: Knowing what President Obama thought about the Israeli prime minister—that is, the Israeli prime minister that served most of the time, because I started—when Obama started, I was still for prime minister for a few months, and we worked together in a very friendly manner.

But with Bibi, one would have expected America to somehow make some different decisions and change some attitudes and make some—take some decisions which were not taken. The fact is that while in Israel it became very popular to look at Obama as an unfriendly president, Obama was a great friend of the state of Israel, and the Jewish people, and a lot of injustice was done to him for no good reason. In the heat of the economic difficulties that you had, he raised the support—the security support for the state of Israel, which was unbelievable. And in spite of all the provocations of the Israeli government against him and his secretary of state, the first one and the second one, America only one time in eight years abstained at the U.N. And this was in the last month of the presidency of Barack Obama.

So I doubt that if there will be another Democratic candidate, such as Joe Biden for, for that matter, Michael Bloomberg, who may rise to be the black horse, you know, that will surprise everyone, I don’t think that there will be a big difference. They will all disagree with some policies of Israel, but they will be very careful not to do—and in spite of the bitterness of the Democratic Party over the conduct of the Israeli government towards the Democratic Party in the last decade, I don’t think that they will do anything dramatic, except for one person. For Bernie Sanders. In this respect, Bernie Sanders reminds me of Trump. (Laughs.) He’s not subject to any of the protocols which are common, you know, in our systems, in our tradition. And he can do—say everything, does everything that he will find fit, regardless of what may be the reaction of some of the supporters of the Democratic Party.

BRONNER: Other questions? Yes, ma’am, in the back there, please.

Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson, Quincy Institute.

You were one of the first to recognize that the failure of a two-state solution would lead to an apartheid reality for Israel. Now the prospect of the two-state solution is deader than it’s ever really been. Do you foresee what you predicted happening? And if so, are you ready to address the apartheid reality of Israel, for example, by calling for equal rights and recognizing that the two-state solution is not happening?

OLMERT: I hope that you would not be peace talks with me if I was headed—I never used the term “apartheid.” And I didn’t use it not because I am not aware of the possible complexities and inconveniences, and violations of fundamental human rights which take place on a daily basis on the territories. They’re not based on an apartheid philosophy. So I don’t disagree with the actual manifestation of these violations. I disagree with the terminology which tries to describe it part of the philosophy which is genuinely not ours. The actual events are terrible. I don’t disagree.

And that’s why at the end of the day in spite of—by the way, my personal feeling is that all of these territories historically, historically really, are part of the land of Israel. I mean, there can be no question about it. I don’t remember that anything that was ever found underground in any of the excavations done in every part of the land on the west side of the Jordan was ever related to anything which reminds us of the Palestinian, of Palestinian memories, of Palestinian history, of Palestinian history, whatever. Everything that was found was part of what—is part of our legacy and our tradition. There is no question about it.

But I think that we have to make a choice. What is more important? To cherish the land at the expense of losing the soul of our lives in our country or to make up a concession which is inevitable in order to achieve something which is more important, that is peace? Peace and a sense of direction, and the light of hope, which can change the nature of life and the quality of life, not just of the Israelis but perhaps of the entire Middle East. So, number one, that’s why I am in favor of going back almost to the ’67 borders, almost identically, and with some changes on the basis of ’67. So that we will separate completely from the Palestinians the main interest of Israel. And that’s what plagues me.

You know, everyone asks me, why do you do this and that? I said, I have been working for forty years and more, I was first elected, as I mentioned here, in 1973, which is forty-seven years ago, I was elected member of Parliament. And all my life, I dedicated myself to represent what I thought was the best interest of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. And the best interest of Israel is to have peace with the Palestinians. The best interest of Israel is to separate from the Palestinians. I am not concerned about the Palestinians. That’s not what motivates me. What motivates me is our interest. And this is our interest.

Now, the plan that I have raised in 2006 was called the convergence plan. I don’t know how many people remember it. What I said then was: I am prepared to offer the most generous offer to the Palestinians in order to make peace. And I’ll start it right away. But if, in the event that the Palestinians will fail to accept it—and I was getting ready to—at the point when I was forced to resign—or that I decided to resign, rather than forced—I decided to resign, almost like Bibi. (Laughter.) I was starting to get ready to the idea that they may not—they may not reach an agreement with me.

In that event, my plan was to withdraw from the territories on the unilateral basis, as we did in Gaza and to return back to the boundaries which we think should be the permanent boundaries between Israel and the Palestinian state, so that Israel ceases to be an occupier. And you know what? This is the most serious leverage that we have on the Palestinians, because if Israel ceases to be an occupier, the Palestinians cease to interest the world. The fact that the world is still interested in the Palestinians issue is not because of them. It’s because of us. It’s because of the perception of Israel as an occupier that violates human rights, and civil rights, against everything that the Jews were associated with in our history.

And that is the trigger for the world interest. On the day that we will cease to be occupiers of the territories, the Palestinians will interest no one. And they will—they will be lost forever. And we will be separated. There will be a wall, a border, and they will be on the other side, and do whatever you want. The only change for the Palestinians to gain something that I think they deserve, by the way, and which is essential for creating stability, that will change the entire atmosphere of the Middle East, and that will almost inevitably create the emergence of peace between Israel, and the Saudis, and the Emirates, and the Bahrain, and Kuwait, and all of the other moderate Sunni Arab countries is that Israel will cease to be an occupier, and that we will separate from the Palestinians.

So my plan was, and still is, if there is not a one—a two-state solution, because of the lack of response from the Palestinians, we have to then take action to create that separation. To use it as an excuse in order to continue the occupation of millions of Palestinians is a historic—fundamental historic mistake that will hurt Israel strategically, and will change entirely the nature of our country. And I’m not ready for it.

BRONNER: Sir, you had a question. I was just going to say that maybe the Palestinians themselves understand what you said, and that’s why they’re driving a hard bargain. They don’t want to be unoccupied too easily themselves, because they don’t want to be set out to sea, as it were, without real conditions. But I don’t want to get in the way of another question.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, Jonathan Greenblatt with the ADL.

Nice to see you again. So, you know, it’s interesting, I appreciated the person’s question from over there, probably the country that is most similar to an apartheid state in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran. We know what it does to its ethnic minorities, its religious minority, how it treats women, the LGBTQ minority. There a real fundamental challenges there with that government. Talk to us a little bit about your view on the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and what you think the prospects are for dealing with the threat that Iran poses, not just to the Jewish state, of course, but to the Sunni states, to the other countries in the region.

BRONNER: On one foot, as the rabbis say, OK? You’ve got two or three minutes. (Laughter.)

OLMERT: Jonathan, in order to make it short and sexy I’ll tell you what, I’m not a promoter of The New Yorker, but buy The New Yorker this week. There is a lead story there about the pattern of assassinations by states. And it focuses on two or three, actually—three assassinations. And for some reason, which I’m not quite aware of, my name is mentioned there many times.

It talks about the elimination of the—targeted elimination of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the head of the Hezbollah—the chief of staff of Hezbollah in the heart of Damascus; the elimination of Muhammad Suleiman, the guy that was the head of the shadow army of Bashar al-Assad and was responsible for building the atomic reactor in Syria; and finally, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. But also it tells a story which is very interesting that actually Qassem Soleimani owes his life, the last twelve years of his life, to me, and to some degree also to George W. But I don’t want to go into all the details, because he said—Ethan said I had only two minutes. So read this story.

Iran is bad time. Iran has to be dealt with in a very smart and subtle way. Iran is not Hamas. And Iran is not even Hezbollah, which is more effective and more dangerous. Iran is a major power of eighty million people, of a very high technological development, with capabilities of—and a very rich country with lots of natural resources. It has to be dealt with. I think we made—I think that we have to be very effective—we were very effective with the Iranians. And the fact is that I remember myself, when I was still a member of the Cabinet as the vice prime minister in the year 2003, 2004, 2005. We were a very select group of ministers, prime minister and a couple of us, that were briefed on a daily basis about Iran, and their nuclear program, and so on and so forth.

And I remember that all the experts, all the bigshots of the Israeli intelligence explained to us that in 2008 the Iranians will have an atomic bomb. And if not in 2008, the beginning of 2009 there is certainly that they will have an atomic bomb. It’s now 2020 and they still don’t have it. And they don’t have it largely because of things that were done quietly, without declarations, without fanfare, without trumpets, effectively. Now, I think that the decision of President Barack Obama—I’m sorry. I hope I don’t sound like I am a member of the Democratic Party. But I hate to think that some people that were very, very friendly to us were not given the credit that they deserve. And amongst them is President Barack Obama.

The agreement that he signed, the nuclear agreement, which was cancelled at least by the Americans, as far as they are concerned, and at the time that it was signed I discussed this with every—I was not the prime minister. But I still—you know, I meet regularly with all the guys that are in charge of all the important agencies that are overseeing these issues in Israel. And they all came to me to report to me and to ask my advice or to ask my opinion. And there was not one who didn’t say that this agreement was an improvement—a dramatic improvement in dealing with the nuclear issue of Iran. And that there was not any smoking gun when the president decided to cancel this agreement.

So I think that it has to be taken care of. I think that America has to lead this effort. But it has to be done in a manner that will be effective. And the declarations sometimes have to be somewhat milder and less provocative, and the actions must be more consistent and more effective. And unfortunately, I’m not certain that this is the situation right now. The problem at the present time—the real problem that we have is that the nuclear issue is still far from being real, to the extent that we need to do something from today to tomorrow in order to stop an imminent danger to the safety of our country.

The presence of Iranian soldiers in Syria is of a much greater impact, and much graver consequences. And the fact is, that while we were dealing with the program to attack and destroy Iran in Tehran, in Isfahan, in Qom, in Bushehr, and other places, the Iranians quietly, under the radar, penetrated into Syria. And suddenly we have tens of thousands of Iranians soldiers not far from our border with the capacity of using long-range missiles, that they can bring in. And this is a real problem that will require, again, a lot of determination. Which we show, by the way, to the credit of the government and to the credit of the prime minister, in a much less restrained in expressions against it, which we should no restraint at all.

BRONNER: You can all see why those of us who cover Israel miss this man. (Laughter.) Thank you so much. Appreciate it. (Applause.)

OLMERT: Thank you very much. I must say that it’s always been a privilege to be a guest at the Council on Foreign Relations. I said to Martin (sp) while we were walking through to come here that the first time that I was speaking here, I think in this hall or maybe in the larger one, was in 1982, thirty-eight years ago, when I was a young member of parliament, a few weeks after the beginning of the first Lebanese War.

There was a panel that I was privileged to be part of: President Jimmy Carter, the recent former president of the United States; Richard Helms, the former head of the CIA—the legendary former head of the CIA; McGeorge Bundy, the former national security advisor of the—of the—of two presidents, President Kennedy and President Johnson, the former ambassador in the United—in Israel; and then the ambassador of America in Russia, Malcolm Toon; and a couple of others. And they all attacked Israel. And this poor guy from Binyamina, from Israel, was standing there in the—you know, in the stage. And he had to oppose the president on the one side, the head of the CIA on the other side. It wasn’t very easy.

In the first row of the crowd there was a lady. Her name was Barbara Tuchman, a formidable person in American history. At the end of the day she came to me, and she shook hands with me. And she tapped on my shoulder and she said, no bad, young man. Not bad. (Laughter.) And to this day, I think that this is the greatest compliment I ever had. (Laughter, applause.)


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