Olmert: I was close to meeting Syrian FM

PM says he was "Within a whisker of forging agreement with Palestinians," but "reality" intervened.

Olmert speaks to Channel 2 248.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Olmert speaks to Channel 2 248.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he came close to holding a face-to-face meeting with the Syrian foreign minister just before Operation Cast Lead scuttled indirect peace talks between the two countries. In a television interview with Channel 2 on Wednesday night, Olmert said that on December 22, in the middle of Hanukka, he went to Turkey at the invitation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "We were forging a process to end that night, in which the Syrian foreign minister was supposed to get on a plane to Ankara to meet with me," Olmert said. He denied reports that he had held a telephone conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad during that visit. "I was not with Assad on the line," the prime minister said. "I want to make peace with Syria, that is true. The objective is not a telephone call," he said. Turkey has worked on this process since February 2007, and indirect talks between Israel and Syria were held in Istanbul on several occasions since then, Olmert said. On the night in question, it was Hanukka, and so they had a dinner in which Erodogan brought dreidels for the prime minister's grandchildren. Syria and Israel were very close to holding direct talks and the two countries can still go in that direction, Olmert said on Wednesday. In the Channel 2 interview, which was held as Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu conducted coalition talks to replace him, Olmert made sure to emphasize that he had come close to peace with the Palestinians and was on the edge of direct talks with Syria after years of stagnation on both tracks. Earlier in the evening, speaking at a factory in Ashkelon, the prime minister said he had hoped to be the one who would make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. "I was within a whisker of making this agreement," he said, "but what can I do, the political reality determined otherwise." Time was of the essence here, he said, calling on the next prime minister to pick up where he left off. In his TV interview, Olmert said it was correct for Kadima to hold onto its principles, even if it meant heading into the opposition. "If the [next government] plans to build more settlements, than Kadima cannot be a partner to that," he said. But he added that all efforts should be make for Kadima and Likud to find a way to work together in the next government. When questioned about St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who has been held in Gaza since June 2006, Olmert blamed Hamas for the lack of a deal for his release. There was no doubt that Hamas prisoners guilty of serious crimes, including murder, would be released as part of such a deal, he said. He said he had changed the criteria for which kind of prisoner could be released in such a deal, just so that it would be easier make a decision when the time came. "There are many things that we are ready to do, and then there are red lines that we can not cross. A nation that has no red lines is a nation that is lost. I am not about to be the one to cross those lines," Olmert said. As far as he knew, Gilad's condition was fine. "I want to see Gilad return home as quickly as possible," he said. He said he hoped that it could happen even before he left office. When pressed as to whether this was really possible, he said, "What do you want, a date, a time and a place? I hope, I am making all efforts" to bring him home quickly.