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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Ehud Olmert and the Elephants in the Living Room

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on his way to Europe this week to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac. Olmert was interviewed by the London Daily Independent (home of Robert Fisk) and the Financial Times of London. Some highlights of the interview follow. As you will see, Ehud Olmert has the same problems ignoring the elephants in the living room that the New York Times had a couple of weeks ago. But Olmert has more elephants.
Q: Looking more widely at the situation of the Europeans vis-à-vis the conflict, this week, today, is the anniversary of the '67 war 39 years ago...

EO: This is precisely the day.

Q: Thirty-nine years ago in Britain it was difficult to find anyone who was not wholeheartedly behind Israel in that conflict. The situation now, is to say the least, somewhat more ambivalent.

EO: Yeah.

Q: Does Israel bear any responsibility for that shift in opinion and how has it come about and do you think that you can go some way towards resolving on your visit?

EO: For me to say that Israel doesn't bear any responsibility whatsoever under any circumstance will be silly and not serious. Of course there is a certain responsibility. When you want to find out what has influenced this shift in public opinion in Great Britain over the years since 1967, 39 years ago, from the days when everyone was praying and crying for the safety of Israel: first of all that generation largely has disappeared. And there is a new generation and this new generation doesn't remember that Israel was not in the territories altogether, that we never wanted to be in the territories, that we never really wanted to take over and occupy and territory and that it was imposed upon us by the aggression of the Palestinians and the Egyptians and the Syrians. [This is actually correct, although the 'Palestinians' were not officially part of the war. The PLO was founded in 1964, and carried out many attacks against Israel in the 1964-67 period. But they were not an official combatant in the war. CiJ]

And therefore for many of the younger generation the reality where Israel is administering the territories is the reality of life. And they don't know what lies in the background of it. So that's one reason why there has been such a shift on the part of the people.

And I think that also it is sometimes quite harder to explain the complexities of the situation because Israel is known to be such a sophisticated, powerful, modern nation. But, you know, so many of the people who look at the situation just do not remember that the Palestinians want Israel to return back into boundaries the width of which is 12 kilometres, that can be cut into pieces within minutes.

And they are also not familiar enough with the historic facts to remember that the Palestinians brought it upon themselves when throughout history they always refused to make peace when peace was possible. So, indeed there is a shift in the public opinion and I hope that with the apparent desire of Israel to pull out of territories, to separate from the Palestinians and help create a two-state solution, that this attitude will change.


Q: Is the referendum a factor in your timing?

EO: The referendum is an internal game between one faction and the other. It is meaningless in terms of the broad picture of chances towards some kind of dialogue between us and the Palestinians. It's meaningless.

Q: It could be argued that if he called a referendum and he won, even though you don't accept the terms of the prisoners' document, he would be strengthened somewhat.

EO: Look, everything that can strengthen Abu Mazen is favourable. However, at the end of the day he will have to make these basic principles that were outlined. So he will not be able to get away by saying I forced a referendum that accepted a programme which is far behind the basic principles that the international community defined anyway.

Q: You talked before the election about permanent borders resulting from what we now call realignment. You said in a Time Magazine interview that they might not be permanent but they would be pretty close. How negotiable with the international community are those borders?

EO: First of all, I'll tell you what. You know it's a problem sometimes when you speak to journalists. They quote you and then they read what they wrote and then they even explain it. It's dangerous. I don't retract on anything that was attributed to me. What I wanted to say and what I want to say now is I want to separate from the Palestinians - OK - into defensible borders that can provide security for the people of Israel, of course in consideration of demographic changes that took place in the territories since 1967 and to which the president referred in his famous letter of the 14th of April 2004 as you all recall, I'm sure.

Now, this is what I want. I want to separate from the Palestinians. I want them to have their independent, separate state on a contiguous territory [And there's the elephant in the room again. If the 'Palestinian state' has a component in Gaza and a component in Judea and Samaria, how is it going to be 'contiguous'? CiJ] If and I want Israel to exist of course as a Jewish state in its own territory, as an independent state in its own territory. The Palestinian state, the Israeli state, separate. This is my dream.

If we can, you know, negotiate specific borders that can be acceptable to achieve peace, better. That is why always I prefer an agreement and negotiations. If, as appears at this time, there wont be negotiations because the Palestinian are not ready, because they are not prepared to assume responsibility, because the extremist fundamentalist, religious radical government of Hamas is not prepared and Abu Mazen is too weak, then I'll try and discuss this issue with the international community.

I don't have in mind a specific border. I'm not going to come to Tony Blair or to Jacques Chirac or to Angela Merkel or to anyone - I didn't come to Bush - and say to them this is the line, take it or leave it, I am not going to negotiate it. No. We have a desire to separate from the Palestinians. I believe this is desire is shared by most nations of the world that care for what happens in the Middle East that they want us and the Palestinians to settle it.

I'm sure most of them want Israel to live in security in our country and not to be jeopardised by any future development. I am sure that they all want that the Palestinians will have their own independent and contiguous territory [there it is again. CiJ] where they can establish their state. So there are many basic premises that are shared by all of us. The rest depends on circumstances, on negotiations and discussion.

If the Palestinians will be ready again, I'd more than be happy to negotiate with them because I want to have another side accountable, with a clear address that I can charge with responsibility for events that may take place in the future. What they say is if they don't come, if they are not ready. If all of us agree that they are not ready, what are we going to do? Wait forever? Waiting is the worst. It's playing into the hands of the extremist that don't want any development and that are ready to sacrifice it with blood and terror.

And I say, I am not playing into the hands of the extremists. If you will not allow the more moderate Palestinians to take over and assume responsibility, then I move forward. But I move forward after talking to Tony Blair and to Jacques Chirac and to George W. Bush and to others and trying to prepare a framework that appears to me reasonable to the international community.

And at any given time in the future, even the Palestinians will then be able to meet their requirements as posed by the international community, then we will continue to talk. So it does not preclude any future negotiations with Palestinians. It will perhaps only reduce the scope of differences because if Israel pulls out from a large part of the population or of the territories, then much less will be left for any possible future discussions between us and the Palestinians.

But at the same time it's also true that if they will not come and if we will withdraw into certain lines and if we will separate this with a big fence as we intend to do and that will be the practical border separating us from the Palestinians, it may last for many years. I don't know.


Q: There are doubts in Europe about whether an independent Palestinian state is really possible given the facts on the ground at the moment.

EO: We are not talking about the facts on the ground at the moment. I am talking about changing these facts on the ground. I am talking about pulling out from territories. Don't tell me... Look, I think that the position of the Palestinians is they want 100 percent of every bit of territory. It's a negotiating position that will have to be discussed. [And there's another elephant in the living room, because the 'Palestinians' have made it quite clear that it's not up for discussion. Remember Ehud Barak? Remember Camp David 2000? Remember the Taba talks? Why does Olmert think that the 'Palestinians' are going to change their minds after 58 years of being told that they are 'refugees'? Who was it who said that only an idiot keeps doing the same thing over and over again and expects a different result than the last time? Albert Einstein if I'm recalling correctly. CiJ] I'm not... I don't believe that there is one European leader, serious European leader, which would said that unless the Palestinians receive 100 percent of every demand of theirs, there can be no peace.

I'm sure that the Europeans, with their experience, with their depth of understanding and historical memory which is so dominant in the minds of many European leaders, they know that territories were exchanged, that populations even moved sometimes, that territorial adjustments were made in order to create better circumstances for a peaceful solution. [Yes, but in this conflict, the only such 'exchanges' that were made were Israel giving back 100% of what had been taken in defensive wars. That's what happened with Sinai after the 1956 War. That's what happened under Camp David with Egypt in 1979-82. That's what happened in Lebanon in 2000. And that's what happened in Gaza last summer. The last two times were even 'unilateral' - done without an agreement. So why should the 'Palestinians' expect any less in Judea and Samaria? Because we have more of a spiritual connection to them? Because they're more crucial for us militarily? Just whom does Olmert think he's fooling other than himself and the Israeli left? What's scary about this is that unlike Sharon - about whom everyone said he's trying to put the 'Palestinians' in a position where they reject everything and he can go back to the World community and say, "see they won't compromise" and keep everything (after all, it was not Sharon's idea to do what was done in Gaza in Judea and Samaria) - Olmert sounds like a true believer in his own delusions. He's ignoring the elephants. It's like listening to Shimon Peres or Shlomo Ben Ami. CiJ]

In one format or another, in one manner or another, at the end of the day we will have to find ways to do it here. And I don't believe there is a serious European leader that would say no, either we give the Palestinians accurately 100 percent of what they want or there will never be peace. This is childish and the Europeans are not children. [But the 'Palestinians' are children and the world gives no indication that it intends to cease coddling them. CiJ]


Q: Can I ask you a personal question that you're probably sick of being asked...

EO: Do I look sick?

Q: ...which is about your wife and her slightly different political outlook. How influential is she on you?

EO: First of all, it so happens, you know, I know it's not common, but it so happens we have a happy marriage and I very much love my wife which is also row because I have been married to her already almost 36 years next coming July. So, you know, when you have these two elements - you are married to your wife for 36 years and you love her all these years. There is always a danger that there will be some influence and there has been some influence by her because she has her opinions and I have mine and so that in many different ways I have influenced her also. [And here the elephant in the living room is Olmert's three children. As noted last night, daughter Dana spent yesterday outside the home of IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, calling him a murderer. Olmert's two sons have both emigrated from the country. One was a member of the radical organization Yesh Gvul, while the other never served in the IDF at all. Olmert's wife remains a radical leftist. So how has he influenced her at all? All the ladies should be snickering by now. CiJ]

But you guys don't care for what influences I had on her. You're more interested on the influences that she had on me. So first of all, I admit, she did have a lot of influence on me and it certainly also is reflected in some of my present positions and I'm very proud about it.

You know, to suggest that you live with a person for 36 years, you love him and he has no influence on you is to sound either arrogant or dumb and I don't believe that I am either of these. So of course she had influence on me and we discussed these issues and we discussed them maybe more than they were in other families because this was all my life.

I mean I was involved, in 33 years of our 36 years of marriage I was a member of parliament, I was a mayor of Jerusalem, I was a minister in the cabinet and now I am prime minister of Israel so obviously on the table of my family was discussed more often than of the average family. And the exchange was very lively and very open and very sincere. And it had influence and not only that I won't deny it, I am proud to admit it.


Q: Returning to the Palestinian issue, I guess there is one suspicion in Europe, if I can put it that way, is that you once implied that unilateralism might bring greater territorial gains than negotiations are ever likely to do. And you also said that 25 years is the period after a unilateral withdrawal - the sort of thing you are envisaging - before...

EO: Don't fall in love with everything that you may have read and everything that you may have heard from any political leader, including myself. I don't know, I don't want to argue even whether I said it or not.

The point is very simple. The choice that we have, coming very soon, is either to negotiate with someone that doesn't want to negotiate with you or to protect the status quo for an indefinite period of time.

I think there is a third option and this option is to move forward, to change the realities, to create a movement that in itself will be a trigger for positive developments. And that's basically what I propose. Now, if I would have withdrawn from 90 percent or 91 percent or 88 percent of the territories, that it something that ought to be left for that stage when it will happen.

The fact is that I am ready to pull out from most of the territories. I'm ready to change the demography, the Jewish demography in those territories to allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory. [There are three more elephants. One is the 'contiguous' question. The second is the demography. It's a lie that Israel is being demographically overrun by the 'Palestinians.' And for the 'Palestinians,' the people who have been held hostage as 'refugees' for the past 58 years are every bit as much of an issue as the map. CiJ] Why wait? Why postpone it forever instead of doing it right now? Why yield to the ultimatum of Hamas rather than face it with vigour and determination and change the realities. And that is what I propose.


Interview in Jerusalem on June 6.


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