Olmert: No hope for a comprehensive agreement in the near future

olmert in shuk 298 AJ (photo credit: )
olmert in shuk 298 AJ
(photo credit: )
The following in an interview Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave to the 'Post' six weeks before the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip: Ehud Olmert doesn't envision a 'honeymoon period' after disengagement. Nor is he optimistic about reaching a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians in the near future. This, he says, is what distinguishes him from the Left, who 'believes that all of the issues can be solved easily.' He is equally skeptical about the Right, accusing it of 'empty sloganeering' when it comes to being prepared to make concessions under certain conditions. 'Whenever there is a chance for any kind of agreement,' Olmert claims, 'they always oppose it.' What he doesn't question is the wisdom or necessity of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, an area, he insists, that is not strategically important, but rather 'mud that has caused only trouble and hatred.' In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post in his office in the Knesset, Olmert discusses why he considers unilateral disengagement different from the Oslo process - and expresses cautious hope about the Palestinians' willingness to assist in making the transition process 'smoother and more restrained.' Post: What is your assessment of Tuesday's summit meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)? Olmert: Different from what it appeared to be. On the face of it, Sharon seems like the strongest man in the world. Someone with enormous support. Someone who is not in political turmoil. Someone with 80 percent of the Knesset under his command at any given moment. Someone whose party is fully behind him. Someone who moves rapidly forward. The reality is different. Sharon's objective situation is very weak - considering the opposition, considering the lack of maturity in the Knesset, considering the challenge of the most senior ministers against him in the cabinet. But, instead of playing weak, Sharon plays strong. Abu Mazen is just the opposite. He has the Arab countries solidly behind him. He has the majority of Palestinian public opinion solidly behind him. All of the strongest men in the PA are behind him: Muhammad Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and all the security organizations. But he's in love with his image of weakness, because he believes that this helps him mobilize international pressure on Israel to make more concessions. Post: Is he right to believe that? Olmert: He's not entirely wrong. After all, everyone keeps telling us we've got to help him. You know: 'The poor guy! He can't survive!' And whom do they say it to? They say it to a prime minister who doesn't have a majority in his parliament - and this is in a democratic system - who doesn't have a majority in his own party. Some of the most senior ministers in his cabinet are all-out against him. So, the perception does not represent the reality. And therefore, Tuesday's summit was much more serious and fruitful than it appeared. Sharon was very flexible and forthcoming. Abu Mazen's agenda, of course, required him to convince everyone that Sharon wasn't yielding on anything. But the truth is that Sharon proposed relinquishing control of two more cities [Bethlehem and Kalkilya] to the PA. He also said he would seriously review the release of additional prisoners. And he's prepared to go ahead with the removal of more road blocks. The Palestinian reaction made Sharon appear much more unyielding than he really was. So, no one needs to be carried away by the rhetoric. I think there's a chance the Palestinians will make an additional effort to help the transition period become smoother and more restrained. At the end of the day, when you take all these elements and put them in place, the issue that looms largest is that of terrorism. If the Palestinians do not restrain terror, the expectation for a major breakthrough after disengagement will not materialize. If there is an effective control of terror, then maybe disengagement will be very meaningful toward the next step. Post: What is the next step? Olmert: Since all these are unknowns right now, I think it's too early to be talking about the next step. It remains to be seen how disengagement will be carried out, what its impact will be on Israel, and what will be the performance of the Palestinians. One thing that can be said now is that the narrative - the defining process - of the Middle East for the upcoming decade will be largely influenced by ramifications of the disengagement. Post: More than by the upheaval in Iraq? Olmert: Iraq is a different story. But it doesn't contradict this. Post: If the Palestinians curb terror after disengagement, will there be further Israeli withdrawals? Olmert: So far, disengagement has not been based on an agreement with the Palestinians; it's a unilateral move. The scope, the location, the extent, the number of settlements and the timetable were dictated and determined by Israel alone. The discussions on the technicalities of its implementation are an outcome of that unilateral decision. Post: Now the question is: Will there be a meaningful dialogue after disengagement? Olmert: Why would there be 'meaningful dialogue'? What we have to do at this point is jointly lay foundations that will help stop terror completely. There is no question that this is the main interest of all parties involved. Why would it be in the Palestinians' interest to curb terror if disengagement came about as a direct result of terror? Disengagement is not a direct result of terror. It is a direct result of the lack of political progress, as well as the interest Israel has in reducing the level of conflict in areas which are not as strategically significant as they were previously thought to be. Post: Which areas? Olmert: Gaza. Gaza is not strategically important. It is 'mud' that has caused only trouble and hatred. There is no future for Israel there. This was the basis of my decision to move forward with the disengagement before everyone else. I am aware that there are many who claim credit for the beginning of it, and I don't want to fight over that point. The basis of my approach was that I didn't see why we had to hold 10,000 soldiers to protect 10,000 people in an area without any future other than war and confrontation and terror forever. Now, there may still be terror from Gaza when we pull out. And we'll have to fight this terror. But I think it will be easier to fight such terror without the settlements there than if we had to protect the civilian population simultaneously. In other words, the pullout from Gaza is not a result of terror, nor will we stop fighting terror from Gaza if it continues. When you ask why it's in the Palestinians' interest to stop terror, I say they'd better stop if they don't want us to attack them and target their leaders - this time in perhaps a much more painful manner than the way we did it up until now. Post: What makes this different from the Oslo process, other than the timing of the hoped-for agreement with the Palestinians? Olmert: The difference lies in the realization that there is no partner. Oslo was based on the false and defeating impression that there was a partner. Disengagement is based on the realization that there is no partner. So the starting point is different, and the fact that this is a unilateral move. Post: In an interview you gave to the Post shortly after your initial statement about the need for disengagement, you said that the difference between the Left and the Right in Israel was that the Left was joyfully going to evict settlers out of their homes, while the Right considered this painful. Since then, it appears that the differences have become blurred. How do feel about that now? Olmert: I haven't changed my basic perception. Nor have I changed my basic pessimism about a comprehensive peace agreement. I don't envision a honeymoon the day after disengagement. What distinguishes me today from the Left is that the Left is always overly optimistic. It believes that all of the issues can be solved easily; that the Palestinians are forthcoming and willing and just waiting to conclude an agreement. It ignores their intransigent positions, specifically about the right of return and about Jerusalem. My attitude is different from that of some of my friends on the Right, as well, who don't really want to make any changes. They aren't really for any compromise. They use an empty slogan about being prepared to make painful compromises in the event of an agreement. Yet, whenever there is a chance for any kind of agreement, they always oppose it. What I say is that I don't want to depend on the Palestinians for an agreement. And I don't believe there is a chance for a comprehensive agreement in the near future. So, it is incumbent upon me to think about what I want to do, free of prejudices of all kinds - free of commitments, other than the commitment to the security of the State of Israel, to the Jewish nature of the State of Israel and to democracy in the State of Israel. These are guidelines that dictate my decisions at any given moment. The situation you described - with many soldiers guarding a small amount of Jews close to dense Palestinian populations - exists elsewhere, such as in the West Bank. The West Bank is not the same, and any attempt to draw comparisons is false and not serious. I am sick and tired of hearing from stupid settlers that Gaza and Jerusalem are the same. Gaza and Jerusalem are not the same. They never were. There are priorities. And I am not prepared to look at Gaza and Jerusalem and Shilo and Beit El and Ofra as if they were all on the same level. Nor am I prepared to accept the argument that if I pull out of Gaza, I am necessarily willing to pull out of Jerusalem. This is nonsense and I won't have any part of it. Post: Yet you indicated publicly on more than one occasion that Jerusalem might be under discussion. Olmert: I promise to give The Jerusalem Post a comprehensive interview half a year from now, in which we will review together the chances, the possibilities and the opportunities after disengagement. To say something today, before disengagement has actually been carried out - before we can carefully examine what actual impact it has had on both sides - is nothing more than a hypothetical discussion, and I'm not an academic. I'm a political figure and my role is to provide solutions and action. Most countries have strategies that are a little more long-term. I'm not saying I don't have a strategy. I'm saying that I don't want to share it with you now. Post: Does Sharon have a strategy? Olmert: I'm sure he has. Post: Does he know what he wants to do after disengagement? Olmert: I'm sure he has thought about it a lot and that he will continue to think about it, but when to say and when to finally share is something that has to be examined and weighed carefully. It's part of the strategy. Post: Whom does he consult with for this strategy? Olmert: I don't know. Ask him. His adviser, Dov Weisglass? He plays a prominent role in the new book, Boomerang, that accuses him of cooking up disengagement to help Sharon evade criminal investigation. Theirs is a childish and grossly inaccurate account. They [the authors] had a concept and they built up the story according to that concept. And they wouldn't let the facts interfere with their concept. Look, I can prove that I talked about disengagement more or less along the lines it is being carried out on now months before it first became public. So, did anyone say that I was also in this secret loop of Sharon's investigations and his sons' manipulation? It's ridiculous. Post: What about Natan Sharansky, whose book was touted by US President George W. Bush? He is neither an overly optimistic leftist nor a 'stupid settler.' Olmert: First of all, I don't think the settlers are stupid. I have enormous respect for the majority of them. They are serious, they are patriotic, they are the best amongst us. I meant to say that those who argue that if I pull out of Gush Katif I will definitely pull out of every part of Jerusalem are using a stupid argument. Sharansky is a person I admire. Never in my political life was I more excited and moved - literally to tears - than when he first took his oath of office in the Israeli cabinet. If there is one moment of great historical significance, it was when Sharansky, the dissident from Russia - the man who fought against the Russian empire with courage and vigor - stood up in the Knesset as a free man, after having been elected democratically in the State of Israel. And forever, Sharansky will be that symbol for me. Of all the members of the Knesset, he's among the very few whose importance goes far above and beyond the day-to- day politics of Israel. That's why he's so highly respected. But I disagree with him about disengagement. I see no contradiction between disengagement and Sharansky's basic philosophy about democracy, because I'm not talking about entering an agreement with the Palestinians before they fulfill all their obligations to fight terror and implement democratic reforms. Post: Should he head the Jewish Agency? Olmert: I prefer not to talk about that at the moment, because of the issue not having been resolved yet. But I will say he's certainly worthy of heading the agency. Post: Who is going to be the next prime minister - you? Olmert: My candidate for the next prime minister is Arik Sharon. The question of who will succeed him is wide open. I certainly will look into it when the time comes, but I think it's too early to even talk about it. Post: What about Netanyahu? Olmert: I disagree with his politics, I disagree with his tactics, and I disagree with his credibility. Post: What about the Silvan Shalom and Danny Ayalon affair? Olmert: I'm not familiar with all the facts of the affair. But I will say that there's lots of injustice done to Silvan as far as his performance as foreign minister is concerned. He's a much smarter and more capable person than some of his critics have suggested, including myself. I made a mistake about him [by referring to him as a 'caricature']. True, I wish his positions were a bit different. His position on disengagement hasn't been positive enough to win him the open hearts of many people in the world and this has become a problem for him as foreign minister. But he's not a problem for the government. He's not sabotaging the government's policy. This is done by another minister... [Netanyahu]. Post: Are you saying Netanyahu should be fired? Olmert: No. I don't want the already unstable government to be shaken any more. Even if he votes in two weeks for a bill in the Knesset to delay disengagement? If it isn't the government's policy, then this is a problem. Because a member of the cabinet can't vote against the government in the Knesset. Were you disappointed with recent statements by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? Has the Bush administration backtracked on its support for the Sharon government? No. All the statements made by President Bush and Secretary Rice were in the framework of their mainstream Mideast policy. Sometimes, when they talk with Abu Mazen, they emphasize those parts which are more favorable to Palestinians, and when they talk with us, they emphasize those parts which are more favorable to us, but I don't see any departure from their policies. They talk about the need to fight terror; they talk about the need for democracy; they talk about a move toward an agreement. They were always against the expansion of settlements and in favor of the removal of unauthorized outposts. Post: What about the US reprimanding Israel for its arms sale to China? Olmert: This is an entirely different issue. It was equally sensitive during the Clinton administration. The original dispute about the Chinese happened with Clinton, not with Bush. What about the rumors that you and Ehud Barak have been plotting to form a party together? Unfounded. I have been friends with Barak for 30 years, and there were times when we fought and hardly spoke to each other. Then we resumed our friendship. But to conclude that we're forming a party together is ridiculous. What about the other Barak - Aharon? As a lawyer by profession, how do you feel about our interventionist Supreme Court? I don't always agree with the Supreme Court. But there are very few people in our public life for whom I have more respect than Aharon Barak. He is really an extraordinary human being - perhaps the greatest justice in the world. I'm proud that he is the president of the Israeli Supreme Court. It's true that I have some qualms about what is known as his 'judicial activism.' There are certain things that I don't think the Supreme Court should be dealing with in the first place, but I would be very careful about voicing criticism. Unfortunately, in recent years in Israel, such criticism has been manipulated to attack the Supreme Court and to challenge the legitimacy of some of its decisions. This, I think, is much more dangerous than some of the disagreements I have with the Supreme Court. Post: What is your position on the Dovrat Commission, and is Education Minister Limor Livnat being unfairly vilified? Olmert: I'm always in favor of ministers who are ready to reform, because it's much easier to carry on with traditional patterns. Change is always difficult. Therefore, I have a lot of respect for her attempt to change the education system. I generally agree with the goals of the reform, with some reservations, particularly about vocational education, which I think hasn't been dealt with adequately. But the attacks against Limor [on the part of the teachers' unions] have been unfairly personalized. Post: You say you are always in favor of ministers who are ready to reform. What about Netanyahu's economic reforms? Olmert: I'm in favor of some of them, but not all. I always have the feeling with Bibi that first of all there is a statement and a press conference and a lot of PR. And then you look for the beef, which is often hard to find. The most ambitious reform of his, for example, had to do with the ports. It cost us billions in real time. Yet it's only going to be implemented years from now. Look, he has done some very important things that deserve to be recognized, but I think there is not enough balance between the country's social needs and the policies he has advocated. One can't ignore that this is a country in which more than 30 percent of the children live below the poverty line. Netanyahu hasn't taken quick measures to deal with this problem because he's an orthodox free-market advocate. I am far less orthodox in my approach. Post: Are you worried that Sharon's life is in danger? Olmert: Sharon is very well-protected. But I'm certainly worried about the repeated expressions of personal rage against him. This could contribute to creating an environment in which irresponsible people could get carried away by their emotions.