Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sits behind his desk Wednesday in his small, pointedly un-prime ministerial-looking office at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and is all business.
No humor, no stories, no schmoozing (all former Olmert traits). Just business. It's been just over two months since Olmert stepped in for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and the change is not just apparent in his new to-the-point demeanor. The wear of his hefty job is also apparent in his face: The man looks dog-tired.
And with good cause.
Olmert has moved overnight from behind Sharon's protective shield into the front line where he is ultimately responsible for so much - the country, the new party. He is now no longer Sharon's trail balloonist, but the balloonist himself. It's something he has wanted, something he has prepared for, something he surely dreamed of, but that doesn't make the transition any easier.
There is something ironic about his new position. He is probably the most protected man in the country. Yet, at the same time, he is the most exposed - exposed to a constant barrage of criticism for his decisions, many of them (like the decision to dismantle Amona) highly controversial, and now also exposed to the regular pre-election campaign bashing of the front-runner.
But pity not Ehud Olmert; no wilting flower is he. On the contrary, Olmert gives as good as he gets, here sending sarcastic jabs in the direction of his detractors, there throwing hard punches.
After four years of Sharon, the country must now get accustomed to someone who is very much not Sharon. Not in terms of personality, style, or in policy. Remember, the two men vied for the Likud leadership in 1999. Sharon won. They are not one and the same.
Regarding personality, there was something incongruously warm about the late-model Sharon that led the country over the last four years. Olmert doesn't exude that same warmth.
Sharon was self-deprecating and funny. Olmert is not one to make light of himself, or of his abilities. On Wednesday he was somewhat sarcastic, but not funny.
And regarding policy, key differences between Olmert and Sharon are emerging as well. The most apparent is that while Sharon said there would be no further unilateral disengagement moves after Gaza, Olmert is moving squarely, and rather quickly, in that direction - although he makes a point of calling this "setting the country's permanent borders," rather than unilateral disengagement.
After spending much of the last two months dodging the press, Olmert has granted The Jerusalem Post this hour-long interview - one of a series of media appearances his handlers are carefully allocating in the run up to the elections.
You've started talking about what settlement blocs will be incorporated into Israel. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz recently added some, as did Avi Dichter. Where is the line?
I spoke in general about Gush Etzion, the Jerusalem envelope, Ma'aleh Adumim and the Ariel region remaining part of Israel, and I spoke about the Jordan Valley as a security border. I don't think it would be fair for me to talk about this more in detail.
This is something we need to discuss, to define. After the elections, I intend to wait and see if the PA accepts the three principles we set down with the international community following the Hamas election victory, and whether they accept the principles of the road map and work according to them. It is not enough for them to make declarations; we have to see if they act according to the principles of the road map, disarm, change the [Hamas] charter, accept previous agreements, recognize Israel's right to exist, and everything involved. If they do this, there would be a possibility for negotiations.
We will wait, but I don't intend to wait forever. I am not willing to have Israel live according to a PA-set timetable any longer. If, after a reasonable time passes, it becomes clear that the PA is not willing to accept these principles, we will need to begin to act.
In the first stage, I plan on holding an internal Israeli dialogue to reach a definition that reflects a wide national consensus about what Israel's permanent borders should be. I intend to speak to everyone, first and foremost the public who lives in the territories.
What do you mean by a "dialogue?"
Discussions. I'm not going to get into the logistics, but I will meet the representatives of different segments of the population. I want to first negotiate with the people of Israel, to build a consensus on the issue of the borders. It is possible that there will be gaps; there may be disagreements we aren't able to bridge. But I think the first stage will be to reach a national agreement that should come before negotiations.
Shouldn't this internal dialogue, as well as where the borders will run, be held before the elections, so the voters know what exactly they are voting for?
You don't sit before the elections and deal with these matters in such high resolution. I have set out a direction, which is more than any of the other candidates have done.
But both Mofaz and Dichter expanded on that direction.
Dichter is perhaps a candidate to be in the next government, depending on how things develop, but he is not poised to be prime minister. So with all due respect, it is not the same.
I am setting out a direction, which I think includes a lot as far as content is concerned, and it gives a good understanding as to what will and will not be.
The Beit El-Ofra block?
You want me to draw an exact line, and at this point I don't want to... the general directions are moving into the main settlement blocs, while preserving the unity of Jerusalem. During the first stage, I want an internal discussion inside Israel, before I go to external negotiations. In parallel, I want a dialogue with the international community.
The conditions [in the world] for Israel are much more comfortable than they have been over the last decade, for two reasons. The first is disengagement and the good will it generated toward Israel, principally because of the leadership and courage of Ariel Sharon.
The second is the Hamas victory, which altered the perception of what is and is not realistic in a diplomatic process. There is one reality when Hamas is not in the government, and another reality when Hamas is in the government and is the dominant factor in the PA.
Regarding this reality, we can wait: What will happen if Hamas continues with this position - they don't want negotiations, they don't want peace. How much time will Israel wait? Forever? Will we be captives to a PA that is not willing to make peace? Will we sit back and deal only with terror, only react, not initiate?
Or at some point do we say, "Okay, we waited. There is no way there will be a change on the other side, so lets see what we have to do in order to serve Israeli interests."
At that point, the first stage is an internal dialogue, in parallel with a dialogue with the international community.
I believe in our ability to speak well with Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi, Jacques Chirac. I know them all and have met with each. [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon developed excellent relations with some of them that I wish to continue; I established good relations with some of them myself.
I believe it is possible to engage in a much more comfortable dialogue with Europe now, because they are also very worried about the victory of Hamas, and the intimate connection between Hamas, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah.
Also, [we will certainly have this dialogue] with the US Administration, and with President Bush. I don't think there has ever been a president who understood so deeply the complexity of this issue, and was so committed to the struggle against terrorism.
I believe we will be able to reach an understanding that will create an international atmosphere to bring about change in the PA.
We will always prefer an agreement. But if this turns out to be impossible, we will have to weigh our next steps. In the final analysis, my intention is that, within four years, we will arrive at Israel's permanent borders, according to which we will completely separate from the majority of the Palestinian population, and preserve a large and stable Jewish majority in Israel.
Dichter said that Kadima will get together immediately after the elections and draw up plans for the next disengagement.
We have to decide on our strategy and vision, and where we want to go... First we will complete the security fence and make it compatible with the permanent border that will be determined. It won't be the along the same route as today, which is only for security. The route we determine may in certain places move east, and in other places move west.
Is it reasonable to think Hamas will change?
I said that I will wait a while.
I don't want to commit now. It will be a reasonable amount of time, but within the next four years.
Doesn't this contradict what Sharon said - that after disengagement he could sit outside Gaza in this new "parking place" for 10 or 20 years and see how things develop, and that there wouldn't be another disengagement?
I'm not talking about disengagement, but about setting permanent borders. You have to remember that Sharon spoke before Hamas won the election. I don't think it is responsible to judge what he said while ignoring that in the meantime the reality has changed so conspicuously.
Can you imagine a situation in which the US would agree to Israel holding on to the Jordan Valley?
I don't suggest we begin starting negotiations with the US - not even via The Jerusalem Post. I will talk with the US, with the president, with policy-makers.
We will retain all of our security options. We will not lose any option to act in line with our needs in the fight against terror. This is to a large degree the case today in Gaza. It is easier for us to act today in Gaza.
Kassam rockets were fired [before disengagement]. The worst terrorism took place when we were everywhere in the territories. Today, I can operate in Gaza. Almost every day, we have been preventing terror acts, and targeting people involved in terrorist activities, as needed according to the circumstances. All those options will also be retained in the future in Judea and Samaria.
Since Hamas said that disengagement came about as a result of its attacks, if there is another disengagement, is it not logical for you to end the construction freeze in E1 between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim?
Certainly. E-1 will be built. I said that Ma'aleh Adumim will be part of Israel, and E1 is a necessary condition to keeping Ma'aleh Adumim. We will not keep Ma'aleh Adumim as an enclave, but there will be territorial contiguity from Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim.
Within the next four years you intend to begin building E1?
Do you take Hamas's statements that disengagement was a victory for its actions seriously?
No, nor do they take their statements seriously. It is no coincidence that Hamas is not now directly involved [in terrorist acts]. It is no coincidence that they are not now directly activating terrorism. They are not doing this, because they know the price they have paid for it. Hamas sees the price that Islamic Jihad is now paying.
They know that a state that left [Gaza] out of weakness, doesn't engage in targeted interceptions, doesn't carry out seven to eight targeted interceptions within three weeks. That is what a country fighting terror with all its might does. This week, the head of Hamas in Judea and Samaria was taken from his home and arrested. This is not exactly weakness, and they know very well that it isn't weakness.
Are you concerned about the statement made by incoming Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh after Dichter spoke of further withdrawals, that Israel should continue to disengage because every inch strengthens Hamas?
I'm not impressed. My life is not determined by Hamas's actions or its statements. I define my goals and our ability to carry them out.
With all due respect to the daily actions of the IDF, Sharon and Mofaz left the impression that once Israel disengaged from Gaza, it would use a degree of force to combat terrorism it hadn't used before. The public doesn't see this happening.
In life there is no single "slam, bam, thank you ma'am." Only certain politicians talk in those terms. In life, there is one slam, another bam, and then another. And the Islamic Jihad in the last two months received one slam, and another, and another - almost every day.
But the Kassam rockets are still being launched.
Fewer and fewer all the time. I have not placed any restraints on the security forces to continue with the interceptions, as long as they assist in stopping terrorism.
Do you agree with Mofaz that Haniyeh is a legitimate military target for Israel?
Whoever is involved personally and directly in terror is a target. We haven't forgot that Haniyeh was an aide to Sheikh [Ahmed] Yassin and Yassin was targeted because he was involved in terror. So if Haniyeh commits acts of terror, he is opening himself up to the possibility of being targeted. I hope he doesn't.
Do you envision a situation in which Israel will move ground forces into Gaza?
I don't see a need for this, but I don't want to get into an analysis of the military options. We will do whatever we need to do to preserve our security.
Does the US restrain Israel because of its actions in Iraq, or perhaps because of what it might want to do in Iran?
The US neither restrains nor encourages us. We worry about Israel's security. We don't take advice from the US on what to do. We do what we think we must, according to our understanding and depending on the circumstances. Everywhere.
Some say that the Palestinians ask themselves why should they negotiate with Israel if they can just sit back receive things.
I don't think that is the Palestinian perspective. Abu Mazen's [PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas] recent comments were the exact opposite. They are stridently against Israel taking unilateral actions. When Abu Mazen heard Dichter [talk about future unilateral steps], he immediately said that the PA completely opposes this. If they were getting everything, why the opposition? This shows that they are very afraid of this type of situation.
Will you meet with Abu Mazen after Hamas forms the government?
No. The PA is a single authority. The minute the dominant force in the PA is Hamas, then why [meet]? We do not meet as two graduates from the same high school. There can be only one reason for a meeting - if it serves a political purpose. If the government is a Hamas one, what political purpose can it serve?
What is your response to the report that Abu Mazen hopes you win?
I first have to read the interview. I hope to win the elections. I am not sure Abu Mazen wanted to help me.
Are you currently in contact with Palestinian officials?
No, they are dealing with their matters, and I am dealing with Israel's.
What about the existence of al-Qaida in the territories?
Nothing like that exists. Attempts are continually made by various groups - al-Qaida and the Global Jihad [network] - to plant roots here. There is always talk about this. I don't know what information Abu Mazen was basing his claims about a massive al-Qaida presence. You can always find someone connected to someone else. But at this stage, we can't talk about massive al-Qaida activity taking place in the territories.
You have said in the past that Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem's periphery would not end up being part of the city. There are a number of neighborhoods in the city today that are on the other side of the fence. What do you envision in the next four years?
We will need to look at the reality. If you ask me whether the Shuafat refugee camp needs to be part of Jerusalem, I don't see any benefit in that for Israel.
Everything must be considered when we get into the process of an intensive examination within Israel about our permanent borders - what neighborhoods are not an integral part of Jerusalem, and not an integral part of historical Jewish tradition. I'm not so sure about saying that our forefathers prayed toward Shuafat.
You say you will hold an "international dialogue." About what? Which settlements to keep?
I am not going to hold a dialogue on every settlement. I will hold a dialogue on the viewpoint that Israel cannot wait forever, that it will have to determine the permanent borders, and how these borders will look. You can see that the US president already gave an indication of what he thinks needs to be [included] when a final status is discussed, including an acknowledgement of the demographic reality created in the territories.
You are referring to the Bush letter from April 2004. But wasn't that letter very vague?
It was very vague, but also very understandable.
Are there already understandings with the US?
No, but there is a need for this type of dialogue, and it will take place. I think it is appropriate for Bush and me to hold this dialogue. We know each other, have friendly relations, and he knows that I greatly respect his complete commitment to Israel's security and future. I think he wants to be a partner in the process that impacts the future.
After some settlements are evacuated from Judea and Samaria, will the next government's goal be to concentrate the evacuees in the large settlement blocs?
It is clear that many isolated settlements will not be able to stay where they are now, and will be moved to the large settlement blocs. But I don't want to get into a detailed discussion of who and where.
In this vein, what did you learn from Amona?
The first thing I learned is that when the Supreme Court makes decisions, you have to abide by them.
Another thing I learned was that there is a small group of people in Judea and Samaria who have lost their proper proportions, whose rabbis and responsible leadership have no control over them, and who are liable to threaten the security forces with violence and even carry out acts of violence, like throwing stones and blocks, as they did.
But the most important thing, which I knew beforehand, is that it will be necessary to conduct a dialogue with representatives among the settlers.
Can we rely on the international community to keep Iran from getting the bomb?
First of all, we need to bring about a wide international consensus, both in principle and operationally. We are doing so very actively, but using the right volume. We need lots of action and little talk. I see no benefit to standing in the Knesset every day and delivering fiery speeches. We need to act wisely. We are making the right efforts with the international community to get to a situation in which the UN will be effectively monitoring Iran.
What is your opinion of the Russian proposal?
The Russian proposal is totally unacceptable. Enriching uranium in Russia without Iranian involvement is fine, but there can be absolutely no legitimacy for research and development in Iran. We know what Iran's goals are. We cannot agree to this.
You said Hamas does not pose an existential threat to Israel. Does Iran?
The possibility of Iran having non-conventional weapons is a possibility that definitely threatens the state of Israel.
After speaking to Russian President Putin last week, you issued a statement that he would not do anything to endanger Israel's security. Russia met with Hamas and came up with a compromise for Iran. Doesn't that endanger Israel's security?
The Russians were willing to enrich uranium in Russia without Iranian involvement. I hope the Russians stand firm on this and don't make compromises about research and development in Iran.
The fact is that Putin called me because he invited Hamas [to Moscow for talks]. I think he made the declaration [about not endangering Israel's security] because he didn't want a confrontation with us. I told him I was not happy with his decision and that he made a mistake by meeting with Hamas. But I can't ignore his declaration about never doing anything that will harm Israel's security. It is certainly a statement worth remembering.
How is your path different from Sharon's?
There is no difference in approach. But over the years, as circumstances change, there can be differences in practical aspects of it, because reality is not frozen. The approach of fighting terror with full force, while maintaining diplomatic horizons is the same. That was the practical ethos of Sharon's policies.
Can you clarify what you have said in recent television interviews about Sharon declaring you his successor?
Sharon never said to me, "You will be my successor." He didn't use that expression; it wasn't the way he talked. Sharon and I have a long history of personal relations that go back to 1973, when we ran the negotiations on the founding of the Likud. The connection between us continued in the Yom Kippur War, then in the Knesset. Our relations had their ups and downs, but there was always a connection between us. In 1999, we both ran for the Likud leadership and he won.
In the middle of 2002, Arik's representatives came to me and said he wanted me in the government. Even before that, in the beginning of 2002, Arik asked me to be ambassador in America. This was never published. I told him it was too late. In 1989, Shamir offered me the ambassadorship to the US and I rejected it, too.
In the middle of 2002, we would meet in the prime minister's residence on Balfour Street by the table over dinners that would start at 10 p.m. - and I don't want to say when they ended or who did most of the eating. We had talks and Arik said, "Come, join the government." We talked about the future, and he said he would take diplomatic steps.
For a while before that - even though being mayor of Jerusalem is very important and influential - I was frustrated by the prospect of the government making changes without me being a part of it. I said to Arik, "I will join if I can take a central role in the decision-making." He said this was his intention.
We talked about me being foreign minister or finance minister. He offered me the finance minister job and then he took it back at the last minute. In these talks most of the time Uri Shani and Avraham Hirschson were there, and Omri [Sharon] was there once. Arik said a few times that I could have his job when the time came.
When he formed the government in 2003, he told me he wanted me to be the sole deputy prime minister. After that, when the government was formed, he told all the heads of the security forces, "I want Ehud Olmert to know what I know."
This was the first time that the prime minister was taking such steps, so that if God forbid something were to happen to him, someone would be ready to move into his position.
He never said "successor," but he said he hoped that I would one day enter his position and he took the steps necessary to ensure that I would be ready to do so. So when it happened, I didn't need any preparation. I was familiar with all the central issues.
If you win the election, can you work with Binyamin Netanyahu in the same government? Is he worthy of being a senior minister?
I am very disappointed with the Likud's propaganda. Ten and a half years ago, there were protests against Rabin. In one there was a poster of Rabin in an SS uniform. Bibi was warned before that. After Rabin was killed, we all had to defend Bibi from allegations that he encouraged the assassination. I think we were right to defend him. He never thought it would happen and he had no such intention. But it happened. Not because of him, but it happened, and people pointed to the picture and said that anyone who permitted the poster of Rabin in an SS uniform permitted the bloodshed. Again, Bibi did not hang this poster, but he was at the protest where this poster was hung.
Now I see that Bibi is saying that Hamas is a threat to Israel that must be destroyed. And I see Likud ads that say "Olmert is Hamas" and pictures of me wearing a Hamas hat and the Hamas symbol next to me. I say to Bibi, "Have you not learned anything? Have you not learned any lessons? Such wild incitement again?"
What is a "hilltop youth" supposed to think when they tell him that Hamas is such a threat and Hamas is next to his house, and then they say that Ehud Olmert is Hamas? So I am disappointed.
We were political opponents, and I never hid that, but this kind of extremism and incitement?
After what you just said, could you sit in a government with him?
I haven't won the election yet and anything can happen in three weeks. But if we win, I don't rule out in advance any Jewish, Zionist party being a part of the coalition. I can work together with anyone who is serious and responsible.
What about Amir Peretz? Can you work with him?
I don't intend to rule out anyone in advance on a personal basis. It's not fair and it's not nice. There are many people unqualified to be prime minister, but that doesn't mean they can't handle any responsibility at all.
Why has Kadima fallen in the polls consistently since a couple weeks after you took over as head of the party?
When Sharon was hospitalized, Kadima was running at 38 mandates in the polls. Now we again are at 38. Then we reached 44. I am not competing with Arik. I wish Arik could stand on his feet and be the candidate of Kadima. But he is unfortunately in the hospital and we are praying for him. I am at the head of Kadima and I believe we will win, and that's what Arik wanted.
It's important for Kadima to garner enough votes to bring stability to the political system for the first time in way too long. We need to end the political extortion and stop there being elections every two years. Israeli democracy can no longer tolerate this situation.