PM to Post: I had no illusions about this job

Olmert looks back at the war and forward to dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and domestic opposition.

September 28, 2006 22:40
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Considering that he led the country into a war most Israelis don't think they won, that his polling numbers are abysmal, that realignment - the raison d'etre of his party - has been shelved, that opposition to him is mounting inside Kadima, and that the State Comptroller is breathing down his neck, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert doesn't look or sound particularly beleaguered. There are no deep circles around his eyes, no new noticeable furrows in his brow, no contrition in his voice, nor newfound humility in his demeanor. Olmert, during an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, remained quintessentially Olmert: sure of himself, combative, articulate and ever ambitious. "I am ready for this job," he said after suffering through what by most objective criteria could only be described as a nightmarish first summer in office. "I still feel I'm ready for this job, and I'm prepared to deal with all the difficulties, challenges and complexities that are part of it." While his legions of critics may doubt that last statement, they have not succeeded in chinking the man's self-confidence. Sitting behind his desk at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, a sign "The Buck Stops Here" resting on one of his bookshelves, Olmert has ready answers for all the questions about his management of the war. No, the campaign could not have been stopped earlier. Yes, Israel proved to the Arab world its strategic capabilities. No, the final, controversial ground offensive that killed 33 soldiers was not ill-conceived. Like all leaders during these types of interviews, Olmert came prepared with a determination to get across certain messages, regardless of the questions. While Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, used to come to interviews such as these with notes containing messages he wanted to convey, Olmert's desk contained no such visible cues - except for one: There was a sheet of paper sitting just to his left that had a few phrases printed on it. When discussing Bush, Olmert glanced at the paper, picked up a pen and jotted down what looked like a check mark. This was one key message the prime minister obviously wanted to get across, but there were others. The following are excerpts from the interview: Did you know, when this conflict began in Lebanon, that Israel had no defensive answer to the short-range Katyushas? I knew very well that as of yet there is no technology that can stop short-range missiles. It was obvious. I said in the cabinet on July 12 that Israel was going to have to bear the shooting of missiles on its townships across the northern part of the country. I want to raise this issue: What happened to all of you guys who so enthusiastically joined in the decision to respond [to the Hizbullah attack] on July 12, knowing precisely what I knew - that there was not yet a technological response that could shoot down short-range missiles or rockets? It was well known. So how come everyone who was so enthusiastically in favor of the response that we made, suddenly, retroactively, started to question the wisdom of that decision? Initially, there was the sense that Israel was reasserting its deterrent capability, hitting back. It was what happened next, the feeling that Israel should either have stopped after the initial response, or used ground forces to stop the Katyushas, that dimmed enthusiasm. Normally, when I ask a question, I also intend to answer it. My apologies. Please... No, go ahead... We were also all told by the chief of staff that the war could be won from the air, so there was a feeling that there was nothing we didn't have a response to. I can't speak now for anyone else. We are in a very delicate situation right now because there is an inquiry... But I said from day one, and all the way through, that the purpose was not to destroy Hizbullah. The purpose was not to destroy every launcher. The ambition was not to catch every Hizbullah fighter. The purpose was to impose a new order on Lebanon that would remove to a large degree... the threat to the state of Israel that was built up over the last 6 or 7 years to an intolerable degree. I never said we would destroy Hizbullah. What I said was that we had to create a new order on the basis of implementation of [UN Security Council resolution] 1559, and the deployment of the Lebanese army in the south of Lebanon, and so on. How to do it? Not by catching every launcher... Just think. If we had started a large-scale ground operation from day one and reached the Litani - forget about the price - the Katyushas would still have continued. There were launchers to the north of the Litani. Had we gone north of the Litani on the ground and reached the Awali, again regardless of the cost, there would still have been Katyushas. There were launchers beyond the Awali and beyond the Zaharani. The purpose was to act in a subtle, sophisticated and smart manner, to combine military power with political leverage, to impose a new order. And that's precisely what we did. This is the first time in a war between Israel and Arabs that we have done so; that a war ends up not with a cease-fire imposed on us, against us, but with a cease-fire imposed by us to suit our political interest. This is what happened with [a vote of] 15-0 at the UN Security Council, without one word of criticism on Israel after fighting for 33 days against a Muslim society, when a large part of the world complained that Israel was destroying all of Lebanon, and that this was disproportionate and what not... I think this was a very smart, subtle and sophisticated use - proportionally - of the military power together with the political power to achieve what we set forth to achieve... [including] a change in the entire political make-up in Lebanon, which is on the way, and a change in the posture of moderate Arab countries against the Shi'ites in Lebanon, which is an outcome of this war... Of course there were failures and mistakes and errors of judgement. I don't want to argue about this. But in all the wars - the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Lebanon War - there were accidents and mistakes and failures in specific places. But altogether there was never a war that so successfully implemented the political objectives that were set out in advance. Yet Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah is now an icon, an idol, in the Arab world. Aren't you concerned by this? I am concerned. There is no question that the Shi'ite community sympathizes with Nasrallah. This is something we will have to deal with. But to summarize [and draw conclusions] - as some do - about the overall impact of the war by looking at only one aspect of it, and ignoring the others, is a terrible mistake. For instance, when one talks about Israel's deterrence vis-a-vis the Arab countries, don't be misled by the rhetoric of Hizbullah for the sake of petty arguments. Is [what happened in the fighting at the southern Lebanon villages] Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail going to be the criterion by which the threat that Israel [can constitute] to an Arab country is going to be measured? Or is it going to be the power [displayed by] the IAF to hit every target, to the right millimeter, at the right time, everywhere we wanted? That is what slightly scares the other countries watching the war. The wars that we are going to be able to fight, or forced to fight in the future, won't be the wars of Maroun a-Ras and Bint Jbail, but rather the strategic wars that depend very much on the accuracy, efficiency and power of Israel's strategic arm and technology. And that was very well manifested during the war. You don't share the concern that we were harmed [not only directly, but in terms of enemy perception of Israel's capabilities] by not being able to stop the short-range rockets for a month? That a quarter of the population was in bomb shelters, that we have Kassams in Gaza and attempts to bring rockets into the West Bank? Everyone understands that this is something that has to be dealt with, and it will be dealt with. We will find a technological answer, and once a technological answer is found, we will be done with it. So it is just a matter of time. It is true that in the meantime it is a major nuisance, but it is not a strategic threat to the state of Israel. What we did to the long-range missiles is of much greater significance in terms of [perceptions of] the degree of threat that the Arabs feel they can impose on Israel. Their perception, rightly or wrongly, is that they can defeat Israel. Isn't that a strategic threat? Can't we link Syrian President Bashar Assad's recent comments about going to war with Israel - comments unthinkable a few years ago - to his perception of what happened in Lebanon? I have a different perception of what their view is of Israel, based on [my] knowledge, from what I read and see. Unfortunately [the sense that Israel's enemies think it can be defeated] is one of the most damaging perceptions, and it was generated entirely, completely, wholeheartedly here, not there - only because of political considerations, only because of a total lack of proportion. These perceptions are created here, and they are spread from here to the outside. But last Friday you had 800,000 Shi'ites praising Nasrallah - there - calling the war a "divine victory." You can produce eight million Shiites all over the Muslim world who hate and want to liquidate the state of Israel. What is new about it? You talked about Bashar Assad. Why is it that Bashar Assad did not make use of the very unique circumstances during the war and attack the state of Israel? Why was he afraid to do it? Maybe he knew something that some of those who are so enjoying the self-criticisms here ignore, and this is that if he were to start something, the response to Syria would not be measured by the number of direct confrontations like Bint Jbail and Maroun a-Ras, but in entirely different ways. And this was a risk he didn't want to take. We passed messages to Syria that we are not interested in attacking it, and we suggested that it not be tempted to do anything that it would live to regret... We respect Syria, and we respect its president, and we made clear that we had no intention of fighting it, and we hoped that it would not be tempted to fight us. And it didn't. You were quite new as prime minister when this conflict erupted. Were the decision-making forums as they should be, or is there too little interaction between the top political and military hierarchy? The former head of the National Security Council [NSC], Giora Eiland, is adamant that the prime minister needs a staff of his own, so that he doesn't have to say "yes" or "no" to the army, but has a range of options, better understands those options, and has his own people check the options that are being presented. Do you feel you are ill equipped, or under-equipped to deal with the types of decisions that have to be made? In principle, all the prime ministers of Israel were ill-equipped with the staff-work that is necessary for every prime minister to be able to weigh the different options and make decisions on that basis. From day one I said I wanted to strengthen the NSC and create an entirely different basis for its daily operation. That's why I said to move the NSC from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And that is what I am doing. It is starting to move back to Jerusalem. The NSC needs to be close to the prime minister, to prepare and analyze the options for the prime minister... I made three basic decisions during the war. One was the decision to respond on July 12 in a manner that almost inevitably guaranteed that there would be a comprehensive confrontation between us and Hizbullah. The second was to understand that there must be an exit through a mechanism that had to be created by the international bodies. Some people say we could have finished [the conflict] after the G-8 declaration [on the first weekend]. Exactly how? Let's suppose that after the G-8 resolution, we had said, "We will stop tomorrow." What would happen? We would move out. Would there be a mechanism to take over? Would the Lebanese army come to the South? ...What about an international force? And what about control over the borders, and above all, the rearmament of Hizbullah? You had to create a mechanism through some international bodies. All those arguments that [the war] could have been finished here or there - only show the critics' lack of experience and understanding. The third decision was to instruct the army to move forward on [the war's final] Friday, when it turned out there was not an acceptable [text for the] resolution [being submitted to the UN Security Council]. How did that original resolution differ from the one that was finally produced? [There were] four major issues. One was about a supposedly minor, but for me a fundamental, issue of moral proportions. The statement about the [need to return the] abducted soldiers was in the same sentence as the desire to settle the issue of the Lebanese prisoners [held by Israel]. Can you imagine? Here are two soldiers who were abducted through a violation of the territorial integrity of the state of Israel, which is recognized by the UN, with eight soldiers killed, and an attack on Israeli settlements all across the north. And at least one of these [Lebanese prisoners, Samir Kuntar] killed Israeli kids with his own hands. I saw [the text] and exploded with rage. How could anyone combine these two issues? It was not just a technical issue, it was something that was fundamental for any future dealings that we might have on similar issues. You won't release Samir Kuntar? I don't want to go into that at this point. I don't want to say anything about the possible negotiations. To link Samir Kuntar and [abducted soldiers] Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser on the same basis was morally totally unacceptable. Even if this had been the only [objection], I would not have accepted the resolution. Another issue was the Shaba [farms territorial dispute]. It turned out [in the final text] exactly as I wanted - that Shaba is an issue between Syria and Lebanon. I said before the war, when I met with Bush, and with Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac and the others, that I was ready to discuss the Shaba issue if Lebanon wanted to discuss it with me. Let them implement 1559, deploy the Lebanese army in the South, and then, according to 1559, I'll be ready to pull out from Shaba. But they will first have to pass a resolution in the United Nations that Shaba is Lebanese [territory], and not Syrian, because under the present ruling it is Syrian. This is what I was ready to say during the war. On Friday morning what I got was something different, and a footnote saying that within 30 days the Secretary-General has to take an action that would resolve this issue, which meant that we would essentially be punished, to "pay" with Sheba, now that they had started a war, over an issue that we were ready to resolve before the war. I couldn't tolerate that. Nobody in Israel would have tolerated that. Also, the definition of the powers of the international force was entirely different. And the definition of the embargo was entirely different. In other words, it was an entirely different resolution. Even 1701 is not good enough for some people. People ask, "How could you stop the war on the basis of 1701?" This [earlier text] was worse. It was clear to me on the basis of the draft, Friday morning, there was no way that I could stop the war. At that point there was no way I could not instruct the army to expand the operation... I still waited until the last minute, until I could check with the Americans. But as it turned out, it was Friday noon [in Israel], and in America it was 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. Only at 5 could we get hold of those with whom we changed the resolution. But I already had to give instructions to the army... I have good reason to believe that only because of the expansion of this operation was the resolution changed. Was this a bluff, or if the final wording had not been amended to your taste, would you have expanded the ground operation and gone further north, doing all the things you had wanted to avoid? At this point, it is not important. The resolution was [ultimately] acceptable, and I could end it. But I had started a genuine operation, and that's why we couldn't stop it on the spot at 3 a.m., at the time the resolution was adopted, because at that time we didn't have any guarantee whatsoever that Hizbullah would not continue to fight. They said they would continue to fight, and Nasrallah appeared on Monday and threatened that until the last Israeli soldier was pulled out of Lebanon, they would continue to fight. I had to give the army the time framework to allow them to move into positions that were defensible, in the event that Hizbullah would continue to fight. I must say that when I heard the stupid words of General "Bogie" Ya'alon, I couldn't believe my ears. If you want to attack me because of some political consideration, so be it. But to say about your own colleagues in the army, the people you served with until a year ago, that they were ready to sacrifice lives for a corrupt spin? To be able to say this not knowing what really took place, and then to lie and spread the word that he met with me during the war in order to kind of argue that it could have been done a different way had I listened to his advice... He never met with me. He asked to see me and I refused, because I didn't think it was appropriate to meet with the former chief of staff, who was in a very delicate relationship with the current chief of staff, in the middle of a war. He met with my military secretary, whom he has known for years. My military secretary... never gave me a full report of what they talked about, only saying that what "Bogie" said was entirely irrelevant to the situation. So for him to go to that degree was very extreme. How comfortable are you with what is taking shape now in southern Lebanon? UNIFIL commander Alain Pellegrini told the Post a few days ago that his force is not going to initiate action against Hizbullah - that if Hizbullah gunmen are on the way to an attack, UNIFIL would consult first with the Lebanese army to see if it needed help. Kofi Annan has said he is not sure the UN will take action [to stop Hizbullah rearming via] the border [with Syria]. We've heard a European foreign minister saying that the international force is there to help the Lebanese army deploy in the South, and then get out as quickly as possible... There are many, many people saying many things. The situation on the ground is different. There is not one single Hizbullah [gunman] who is ready to surface with a gun or fight against the Israeli soldiers still there... It is a slow process, and sometimes some of the UNIFIL people - Pellegrini and others - because of all kinds of complex political considerations, prefer not to announce publicly [things] that might irritate some [people]. But at the same time, when you look at what is going on, the reality is that you don't see Hizbullah anywhere. A slow process that will end with Hizbullah where? Hizbullah will cease to play the same role it used to play. The rearmament of Hizbullah will be entirely different from what it expected. It will never have the same [capability] - heavy weapons that can be a real, genuine threat, a strategic arm of the Iranians. The sentiment of the people of Lebanon - not the Shi'ite community, but the rest - is entirely against Hizbullah. I think [the war] has started a process that will change the nature of politics in Lebanon, and will also change the nature of the role Hizbullah will play. It has diminished the significance of Hizbullah as a strategic arm of Iran. And it will certainly help quiet down the south part of Lebanon as a major source that can trigger violent confrontations between Israel and Lebanon. Perhaps the key disconnect between what we're asking and what you're saying is how you interpret the short-range Katyushas, which you insist should not be perceived as a strategic threat, even though a quarter of the country was forced into bomb shelters or forced to flee, and even though we are vulnerable on the Gaza border, and who knows what potentially... I don't say it is pleasant to be with these Katyushas. I didn't say we like them falling on our heads. And I didn't say my plan is to engage [militarily] with Hizbullah every year for 30 days with a million people sitting in shelters. What I am saying is that this is something to which I think we can and will find a solution. Had we not responded in an appropriate matter on July 12, we would have been sleeping for another two or three years. And when we woke up, it might have been too much for Israel to cope with. Not only with the short-range rockets, but with much longer, stronger, deadlier, heavier missiles that could have fallen not only on the North, but on every part of the country. Why wasn't the military hierarchy screaming, before this conflict erupted, that we had to find an answer to the Katyushas? At the time of this confrontation, I was two months in power. There were many things I didn't ask the [military establishment], and there were many thing they didn't have a chance to tell me. Maybe [Hizbullah] wanted to challenge us because of this timing, but thank God we were smart enough to meet the challenge in this manner, rather than avoiding it and postponing it for another four or five years, which could have been very dangerous for the very existence of the state. The Americans are keen on ensuring the survival of Fouad Saniora's government in Lebanon, but Nasrallah is threatening it. There is some talk of a civil war. Is a civil war there in Israel's interest? I tend to think that Nasrallah will try to avoid civil confrontation. The question is how tough, determined and consistent the Saniora government, the international community and the local population will be if there is a new civil order in Lebanon and a much-reduced influence of Hizbullah. That definitely would not be against Israel's interests. But whether it should be [achieved] through a violent confrontation or not? I am never enamored of violent confrontations. But if there is one, I'd rather it end up with the moderate side changing the situation, rather than surrendering to it. Let's move on to Iran. One or two members of your cabinet are saying that Israel may have to reconcile to the fact of a nuclear Iran. Do you share that assessment? No, I don't think Israel can be reconciled, nor do I intend to [reconcile] to the nuclear capabilities in Iran. Do you think President Bush has the capacity, as well as the stomach, to stop Iran going nuclear? I think President Bush has the courage. This is something that is very important. There is no one in the world today who has greater courage, determination and a sense of mission about these issues than President Bush, and I admire him for this. So President Bush will stop Iran from going nuclear, one way or another? I believe so. We're not the only ones worried by Iranian nukes. The Saudis and the Egyptians are also afraid. Is there going to be a time when they stand up and say, "This needs to end," and begin pressuring Russia and China to vote for sanctions at the UN? I don't know, but the reason I said some positive comments about Saudi Arabia is that when you examine its performance over the last couple of months, you see something that you haven't seen in the past: more sense of responsibility, and a greater degree of readiness to stand up and speak up against Shi'ite extremists like Hizbullah. Where did you see that - at the beginning of the war? But after a week, you didn't see it. They stood up against Hizbullah. Don't underestimate that. Israel was fighting against Muslims, and a Muslim country stood up against the Muslims, criticized their actions and entirely disagreed with how they handled themselves. This is not insignificant. And I think they are very much opposed to Syria and the statements that were made by the Syrian president. They have also signaled their opposition to Iran. Now, do I want them to make all that more noticeable, more powerful, more persuasive, more aggressive? Yes, but I also understand the constraints. Did you meet the Saudi king? I've said what I said. [Olmert flatly denied reports of such a meeting.] The rest is speculation, imagination. Are there are other regional players with whom you have had contact who give you cause for optimism? I am in contact with [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak all the time, and we are also in contact with the Hashemite kingdom... What about Qatar, for example? What do I have to talk to the Qataris about, al-Jazeera? What do you think about Mubarak's statements on the nuclear plants he wants to build now? They are talking about a civil nuclear [program]. So are the Iranians. You know the difference. In principle, I say that every country that is ready to submit itself to the real, genuine, effective control of the IAEA - and that you can effectively make sure that their technologies are developing in this direction, not in the military direction - is one thing. I tend to believe that the Egyptian statement was in this direction. It is not similar in any form or manner to what the Iranians are trying to do. The problem with Iran to start with are the statements of President Ahmadinejad, who says publicly that the ultimate goal of Iran is to wipe Israel off the map. It starts with an ideology, a philosophy that doesn't find a place on earth for the existence of Israel. When on top of this they also develop nuclear capabilities and delivery systems that can reach Israel and European countries, and when you hear the statements made by Ahmadinejad, you say, "Hey, here you can't take a risk." Does Israel have a military option vis-a-vis Iran? Israel can't accept the possibility of Iranians having nuclear weapons, and we will act together with the international players, starting with America, in order to prevent it. As I also said, I believe that President Bush is absolutely determined to prevent it, and America has the capabilities to actually prevent it. Would you consider releasing Marwan Barghouti in the context of a deal to free abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit? I won't discuss any of the options that are being raised now. I think it is irresponsible. Was Barghouti one of those you said you were prepared to release before Shalit was kidnapped? You said then that you were going to surprise people. You may want to surprise people, but you don't want to startle them. When Ariel Sharon came out with disengagement, it was a time of diplomatic vacuum, and he wanted to stave off other initiatives... When Sharon and Olmert came out with disengagement, if you don't mind. You hit me all the time so much. At least give me some credit. ... Do you feel the need to come up with a new initiative, now that realignment has gone by the wayside? I want to deal effectively and seriously with the Palestinian agenda. We can't escape it. If we do not deal with it, we will pay dearly. I originally thought that if and when we find out that the road map and the principles of the international community are not accepted by the Palestinians, and there is no partner, we would have to think of realignment. That was my strategy. But I said all along the way that I would first try negotiations, and first try on the basis of the road map. Now the situation is not the same. The worst thing that can happen to any leader is to fall in love with what he has said in the past, overlook changed circumstances and continue to repeat what he said in the past only because he once said it. I am not made this way. I am ready to reexamine my premises every day, and see whether they are still applicable. The priorities have somewhat changed. We will have to check things, and see what emerges from this reexamination. We certainly need to deal with the Palestinian issue. And we definitely prefer [PA head] Abu Mazen over anyone else because he is fundamentally committed to the international community, to the road map, to the principles of the Quartet, and to the agreements signed between Israel and the PA over the years. But he can't deliver. If it is true that he can't deliver, maybe the outcome of this will be that, unfortunately, he can't be a partner. But you'd agree with me that I'd prefer those who are ready, even if they are unable, over those who say at the outset, "We don't want to accept any of these principles; we don't want to recognize Israel; we don't want to make peace with Israel; we want to fight Israel forever." And the alternative among the Palestinians today is made up largely of these guys. So even though I'm unhappy with the performance of Abu Mazen, at least he says that he is against terror, and wants to resolve the outstanding issues between the Palestinians and Israel in a reasonable, restrained and peaceful manner. You said in another recent interview that you are looking for a potential alliance on the right - maybe the National Union. Why not bring in Zevulun Orlev as your social affairs minister, expand the coalition in that direction? I like Orlev, and on a personal basis we are friendlier than he is with most of his colleagues in the National Union. But the question is what the preliminary requirements for the National Union to join a coalition are. Is it just a welfare minister, or is there a fundamental policy which will not be acceptable to us? My judgement is that it will be very difficult. I'm not an enemy of the Right. I'm not an enemy of the National Union. They are all Jews. They are all genuine Zionists, a patriotic party. How can I be against it? It's a matter of whether or not we can establish a basis of cooperation for handling affairs of state. How confident are you of the solidity of your party, Kadima? The leader of the opposition is telling people it won't make it to the next elections. If I have to compare the solidity of my party with the solidity of the Likud, and [given] what some Likud members are telling me about how they are trying to maneuver in order to outsmart their own leaders, they should be worried about themselves before they try to change the structure of Kadima. Are you enjoying this job? Is it harder than you thought it would be? Did I ever say I wanted to be prime minister for the joy of it? I wanted to do it because I believe genuinely that I can do something good for the Jewish people, for the state of Israel. I am fully aware of the enormity of this responsibility. I am certainly aware now of how difficult it is. If I had any illusions in the past, I don't have them anymore. It is ultimately a very lonely position. You have no one in the end but yourself, your conscience and your God. Nothing else. Two former prime ministers - Bibi [Netanyahu] and Ehud Barak - said to me at different times during the last few months, "You will find out this is a very, very difficult job." And it is. But I say that I am ready for this job. And I still feel I'm ready for this job, and I'm prepared to deal with all the difficulties, challenges and complexities that are part of it. In the end, what I really desire, which goes far beyond my personal status, is that there be a little bit more compassion in Israeli society, that we not be so anxious and enthusiastic to attack each other and punch each other in the face, that there be greater tolerance, and more humbleness among us. I had no illusions when I came here. I worked closely with [some previous prime ministers]. I remember the days when Yitzhak Shamir went through difficulties and pains that were unbelievable. I saw Arik Sharon going through these pains - loneliness and hatred and incitement [against him]. It was heartbreaking. So I knew, when I crossed the doorstep to this room, that I was on my own. And I am ready to take it.

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