With the recent conflict between the Israeli Defense Forces and Gaza-based Hamas, the world is once again focused on the quest for an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Their differences remain stubbornly rooted, and the underlying facts are often obscured by the foggy tumult of history.
During his tenure as prime minister, Ehud Olmert’s mettle was frequently tested. Israel encountered repeated Hamas rocket fire in the spring and summer of 2008. A short cease-fire was negotiated on Dec. 24 that same year, but rocket fire rained down from Gaza shortly after, when a Hamas smuggling tunnel was destroyed by the IDF. Three days later, Israel mounted a counteroffensive with artillery and rockets. While each escalation is detonated by its own unique set of circumstances, the conflicts of 2008 and 2012 are undeniably connected and eerily similar.
I interviewed Prime Minister Olmert in late 2009 and was one of the first and only Americans in that period to ask him about Hezbollah and Hamas, his formula for peace and the dangers of a nuclear Iran. Here is the transcript of that interview.
Q: We all support a just peace with the Palestinians. You negotiated a peace deal While you were prime minister. How optimistic are you of the current process toward forging a lasting peace?
A: I am optimistic in my nature, and I think that achieving just and lasting peace between us and the Palestinians is feasible and reachable. I think that time is ticking and it is not in favor of both sides. We don’t have the privilege of delaying or avoiding taking the right and necessary decision in order to solve the conflict once and for all. By avoiding taking the right decisions, we are leaving the ground for the extremists on both sides and allowing them to dictate the agenda. This is a mistake. In order to try and solve the conflict, I made an extra effort and forwarded to the Palestinian leadership the parameters that might bring a solution to the conflict. Those parameters give the right and only possible answers to the core issues pending between us and the Palestinians including: borders, refugees, Jerusalem and security. It is still not too late and the current Palestinian leadership can adopt my proposal (that I believe will be the solution) and put an end to the conflict. The time of negotiations has expired; now it is time to take hard decisions.
Q: Hezbollah and Hamas have historically been obstacles to reaching peace in our lifetime. How significant a threat do they pose to a settlement, and what can the international community do to assist in stopping militant action from these and other groups?
A: Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations of the worst kind. They are trying to take over the society (both of the Palestinians and in Lebanon) by exploiting the democratic processes in order to reign. Both practically took the Palestinian and Lebanese populations as hostages to their extreme and violent ideology. Those organizations that are listed in the terrorist list, both in the U.S.A. and in some countries in Europe, must be isolated, and the international community must stick to its policy and maintain no contact and no dialogue with these organizations. In the same time, the international organization must strengthen the moderates — the government of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority — and not to allow these organizations to take over the internal agenda. These terrorist organizations are not only a threat to peace and to the possibilities of achieving peace, but (they are) a real threat to the nature of those two societies, the Palestinian and the Lebanese.
Q: The nuclear actions and intentions of Iran rightfully cause concerns not only to Israel but the entire region and world. What diplomacy should the United States and other major countries and organizations pursue?
A: Iran becoming nuclear is a threat not only to Israel but to the entire free world. Iran is being ruled by an extreme leadership that is making every effort, publically and discretely, to achieve military nuclear abilities. This dangerous leadership is calling once and again to wipe Israel from the map and taking practical steps in order to be ready to achieve this goal. We in Israel, with our history and experience, cannot relate to those statements and actions but seriously. We have no other option if we desire to survive. Israel cannot live with nuclear Iran, the Middle East cannot live with nuclear Iran, and the entire free world cannot accept nuclear Iran. There is a wide spectrum of activities that can be taken by the international community in order to put pressure on Iran and force it to play by the international rules. More sanctions must be imposed on Iran, and the international community must appear united and determined. There is a variety of actions that can and must be taken which were not exhausted yet and should be. Time is of the essence. We cannot allow the Iranians to drag time and continue with their plans.
Q: In the wake of the worldwide economic meltdown, how is the economy of Israel faring? If a settlement with the Palestinians is reached, what actions can both entities take to ensure a healthy economy for an independent Palestinian state?
A: The Israeli economy is strong and stable and we managed to overcome the worldwide economic crisis. The Palestinian economy also showed its strength and indicated a growth of 9 percent, which must be developed. The Israeli and Palestinian economies should be separate but complimentary. There is a need to increase the volume of cooperation in trade and industry, to nurture the coordination between the two business communities and remove all possible hurdles. Peace will ensure the growth of both economies, and the establishment of a viable contiguous Palestinian state will allow free mobility and access to both goods and population, and will create new and important opportunities of cooperation and growth.
Q: America and Israel have been allies for many years. How do the Israeli people, especially the Israeli youth, view America and the current administration?
A: Between the United States and Israel, there are strong and unshakeable bonds based on similar values of freedom and democracy. Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East and serves as a beacon to the United States. There is unpartisan support to Israel that developed throughout the years, and I believe that it will grow as time goes by. The United States is the most important strategic partner to Israel. It is well rooted and nurtured throughout the years, and every American administration is committed to the security and the well being of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state. This was always the case and will continue to be under any administration, including the current one. As prime minister, I exhausted all my energy to increase the intimate cooperation and relationship between our administrations. I also worked relentlessly to promote the understandings and cooperation with both houses of congress and the Jewish organizations. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree on everything, on every step or every process. There can be differences of opinion and ideology. There can be difference in attitude. But what contributes to the strength of the relationship is to know on what issues we don’t agree. Having said that, I am certain that the basic values and policies are shared and the friendship and commitment will continue under any administration.
Q: Moving away from the Middle East, what major issues concern you most as we look to the future for us and our children? How should these be addressed?
A: The issue that concerns me more is the growing radicalism in the world and the support that extreme elements, based on extreme ideologies with religious dimensions, are getting from growing parts of the world’s population. In addition, I am disappointed that in the era of globalism, in the 21st century, there are still phenomena of poverty in large scales, disrespect to human lives, to human values and to human rights. Awareness, involvement, promotion and aid to undeveloped countries and society should be put as a goal, with benchmark of implementation, in order to see in our lifetime a better world with better future for generations to come.