In Ofra Bikel’s interview with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he relives the moment he was handed the reins of the country and recalls the last conversation he shared with Sharon before Sharon lost consciousness. Olmert also talks about the political influences in his life and about turning a corner in 2003 when he suggested Israel should pull out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- a plan later adopted by Sharon. “When we have to make a choice between greater Israel or a Jewish democratic state,” he tells Bikel, “then my choice is a Jewish democratic country and that means that we will never be able to keep all of the territories and we have to compromise on land.”
Ofra Bikel: Tell me about the day you learned the prime minister was ill?
Ehud Olmert: I always wake up early Saturday morning, and I have a little bit more time, so I go to the gym. Unfortunately, just before I was leaving, I got this telephone call from the hospital, from the director of Hadassah advising me that the prime minister is in a very acute position and that he might be operated. In the meantime, we got somewhat more reassuring observation from the hospital that it may not be as dangerous as they thought originally. So I’m more relaxed.
Is it nerve-wracking for you?
No, it’s just an emotional event. For most of you, for many outside Israel, Sharon is first and foremost a political figure. He’s the prime minister of Israel, he’s been hospitalized, he’s lost his conscious[ness] now for more than a month; he’s in the hospital and I’m replacing him. But for me, it’s a very personal event. I’ve known Sharon for 33 years; I’ve been working with him. There is always a human being behind the titles and the status. And this is a very unique circumstance where I replace General Sharon, prime minister of the state of Israel -- under these circumstances, it is a very emotional event.
Tell me about the night of the second stroke.
I want to start earlier. It was about 3 o’clock when I was on my way to my office from the prime minister’s office, and a secretary of the prime minister waved to me and said, “The prime minister wants you to go to his room. He needs to talk to you.” I came to the room, and Sharon was sitting there.
It was planned in advance that the next day he would be treated in the hospital and for three hours, more or less, I would hold all the authorities of prime minister. So, in kind of a joke, when I came to the room and Sharon said, “The future acting prime minister,” I said, “You know what, Arik? I made up my mind, I’m not going to make any major decisions tomorrow in the three hours, so you don’t have to worry.” And then I added, “Except for one.” And he said, “What is it?” I said, “I want to replace your staff.” So he laughed, and he pointed at his secretary, Marit, this distinguished lady, and he said, “You don’t touch her,” and I said, “I promise you.” Then we sat and discussed political issues, and somehow, I did not feel that this is going to be my farewell with Sharon, I didn’t feel anything about him. Sometimes people say, “I felt something, I sensed something.” So when I stood up, he rose, and I said to him, “Arik, I’m already waiting to hear your voice calling me after these three hours telling me, ‘Ehud, I relieve you of the responsibility of prime minister.’” And somehow we came close to each other, and I hugged him. It wasn’t very easy. He’s big, but still, I said to him, “This country needs you. Come back.” And he hugged me, and I left. I was emotional, and he was very emotional, and the secretary of the cabinet, who was present, says that every time he recalls this moment, he starts to cry. But I tell you the truth, I never thought at that time that I am actually bidding farewell to this hero.
What happened next?
I had many other activities that evening. At about 8:30 p.m., I was having dinner with Aliza and a few friends from America -- Charles and Andy Bronfman and some more friends. At some point, about 10 p.m., I got a telephone call through my security guards. The secretary of the cabinet told me that Arik is in bad shape and he is on his way to the hospital. I returned to the table. I didn’t say anything, I just kept talking with people, but, of course, my mind was somewhere else. About 30 minutes later, I explained that I got the news that Sharon was not well and that I think I have to go back home.
When I arrived home, at about 11:15 p.m. I think it was, I got a telephone call from the secretary of the cabinet, and he told me, “Mr. Olmert, I have the Attorney General on the line, and this call is taped.” Of course, that was the sign that this is official and formal, and this is a constitutional act. And he said that the authorities of prime minister are bestowed upon me immediately. When I followed the news and I got more telephone calls from the hospital, I understood that life has changed, perhaps forever. That it will never be the same.
My life, the country’s life.
In what way, the country’s life?
This was the end of an era. The end of one of the most dramatic periods in the life of our country and perhaps a new beginning, and maybe, hopefully, I will be the one that has to take this country into this new beginning. And, naturally, that means that life will never be the same for me.
And then what?
I knew already that I will call a cabinet session for early morning, that I’ll advise the ministers of the new change, that I’ll explain the formalities, that I will make a statement to the Israeli public, which was anxious to know what happened.
It looked very emotional.
I didn’t think that I had the authority, the moral authority and the formal authority, to sit in the chair of Prime Minister Sharon; this is his. And I think it was very important to be absolutely clear to everyone that we are waiting for him to return to his chair and that I’m not occupying his chair. I have no authority for that. And I just left it open.
I understood later, as people told me, that the sight of me sitting on the side and his chair is vacant made a certain emotional impact on people because they felt the absence without words, without saying anything; it was made so clear and so powerful that he is absent and we all miss him.
Now you are acting prime minister and running for prime minister. What is that like?
Look, in a certain way -- obviously not under these circumstances -- I’ve been practicing for this minute all my life. I’ve been there. I’ve been a minister many times. I’ve been mayor of the city of Jerusalem, which is perhaps in some ways more complex and more difficult than a ministerial position. I was the right-hand person of Prime Minister [Yitzchak] Shamir for many years. I was vice prime minister for Sharon. So all my political life, I was moving forward to be in a position to take over one day. And this, in itself, is not something that I can’t deal with. What is hard, of course, is the circumstance, which is very unexpected. But Sharon had a very able staff, which helped me a great deal sliding into this job without many difficulties, and the Israeli public was very good to me -- very, very good. There was a general feeling that everyone was hugging me and supporting me and helping me through in order to take over. Everyone felt that it was a personal mission to make sure that I am capable of doing it.
Because of Sharon or because of you?
Because of the circumstances. Because of their emotions to Sharon; because of their love of the country. You know, we are the greatest experts in the world in criticizing our country, but no one loves his country more than the Israelis. No one.
Why and how did you come to the middle?
First of all, rather than arguing about it, I’d say, yes, I have changed my opinions about some fundamental issues of our lives and I’m proud of it. Life is changing, the realities are changing, the circumstances are changing. You have to address yourself to these new changes. And inquire every day within yourself: “What should be my position about these issues now that things have changed?” and [do it] without this kind of dogmatic loyalty to your former positions because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable to show and to admit that you have changed your position. I believe it’s not such a dramatic change as described occasionally by people. When you go back to 1980 -- and at that time I was already a veteran in the Knesset, 26 years ago -- when the then-recent former minister of foreign affairs General [Moshe] Dayan offered the unilateral autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank, which was more or less like the disengagement plan, the only member of Likud that supported him in the Knesset was me.
Fundamentally, I have reached a conclusion that when we have to make a choice between greater Israel or a Jewish democratic state, it is inevitable that my choice is a Jewish democratic country, and that means that we will never be able to keep all of the territories and we have to compromise on land.
Now what has changed in me is my ability to spell it out explicitly -- to talk about it publicly and also to lobby and push for this position because I feel that time is running out for us. I want to be in a position that I dictate the permanent solution rather than react to something that comes from the outside. I want to lead, I want to change, I want to dictate -- and I’m going to do it.
You grew up in a bastion of the right, didn’t you?
That’s true. But I believe that had my father been alive now, and my mother -- and I miss them a lot because I think they would be really proud to see me here -- they would have supported my position. They were practical people; they were not dogmatic people. They loved this country more than anything else. They were absolutely dedicated to this country. They left China in 1933 -- so far away, in those old days -- with a dream of living in a Jewish democratic state, in what was the historic state of the Jewish people. That’s what brought them over here. They never complained. They were always so proud of what we had achieved as a nation. I am absolutely certain that my father, who was the founder of the National Movement for Settlements in Erez Israel …
… Which means?
He was the one who created and built so many settlements; not in the territories, because he was retired when we took over the territories, but in other parts of the country. So settlements were part of his life and part of the basic, most fundamental perceptions of what Israel is all about. He would have said to me, “We have to have settlements as long as it doesn’t contradict the basic destination, which is to maintain a Jewish democratic state. And if, for the sake of having territories, we can compromise the Jewish democratic nature of the state of Israel, then let’s give up settlements.” And that’s basically what I’m trying now to push for.
It’s not easy.
No, it’s not easy. First of all, it’s not easy because it means parting from people that I cooperated with for a long time, people that I admire, that I love. Look, you know, for Americans, settlements are the most powerful expression of what they call Jewish occupation of the territories, and they hate them. They are most unpopular. You must understand that for us Israelis, settlements are something entirely different. Settlements were the purest form of the realization of the Zionist ethos. When Jews came to this part of the world in the 1860s and on -- almost 150 years -- what did they do here in those old days? They built settlements, and settlements are what made Israel, eventually, into what it was.
And yet you have to evacuate them.
We have to compromise, yes. That’s why it’s not easy, that’s why it’s so painful, that’s why it really takes the blood out of our heart. We don’t do it with joy, we do it out of necessity, out of the realization that we have to make a choice between greater Israel and a democracy in a Jewish state.
Why didn’t everyone realize this before?
Because things were not stable and things were not frozen. Things change. There were times that we thought that we could realize this dream of a greater Israel without jeopardizing the democratic character of the state of Israel. At one point, we thought that we may realize this dream but that it may not necessarily be reached by an agreement. That’s when we went to Madrid in October 1991, when Shamir was prime minister. The famous Madrid Conference. We knew when we went to Madrid that if Madrid succeeded, at the end of the day, Israel would have to pull out from the territories. But we believed that we could do it with an agreement. And we preferred to do it with an agreement.
Then, after Camp David 2000, when [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak offered almost all of the territories, and instead of peace, he got the intifada from Arafat, I realized that we don’t have time and that we don’t want to wait and that I’d rather pull out from some territories on a unilateral basis than wait for the Palestinians to mature to the point where they can make an agreement.
We’ve talked to some settlers, and they feel betrayed.
I don’t think they have been betrayed. I think they always knew that a large part of the population of Israel is not happy with their policy and that it may change under certain circumstances. They may feel betrayed by people like me who once supported them and now do not support them, but I’m not certain that they have this privilege to feel that since I supported them at some point, I am forever in debt for this particular point of view. They are great people because they live under the most unfavorable conditions, in danger, and they do it because of one thing, because of the patriotic love for their country. You can’t feel neutral about it or entirely indifferent. You respect them enormously, as I do, but I have to take a decision and I have to be responsible for the future of my people, and this is precisely the responsibility of leadership. I can’t afford to just remain emotional and hug them and kiss them and tell them how great they are. I have to lead this country into new horizons, into a better future, into peace and security, and that means that I will have to pull out of territories and dismantle settlements, and I think that I have to be fair and look into the eyes of those guys and tell the truth, and that’s what I’m doing.
Do you think that Kadima has brought people more into the center?
Yes. Kadima has put order for the first time in Israeli politics. It has established a clear choice for the electorate. If someone wants the extreme right, he’s got Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud. If someone wants the extreme left, he has got the Labor Party and Amir Peretz. If someone wants the center -- and the center means responsibility for the security needs in the state of Israel and openness for the chance of peace, social responsibility and free market economy at the same time -- that’s basically what Kadima is all about. Kadima has proposed a new alternative for the public opinion of Israel, which is composed of two fundamental principles: One is the horizons for peace and change and hope; on the other hand is a free market economy with humbleness, with compassion, with care for the real needy people, which are part of our population.
What comes first?
They come together. They are inseparable. They are inseparable because the new political horizons open up economic opportunities that never existed before. I firmly believe in it. Now as acting prime minister, as minister of finance, as minister of industry and trade, and as someone who has built up a network of commercial relations and commercial agreements for the state of Israel in the last few years, almost across the world…
Your children were always to the left of you.
Yeah, you know, I always admired the tolerance of my family. They tolerated my dissention for the family consensus.
My dissention, which was somewhat to the right in comparison to them, and they never got rid of me in spite of my different positions, which shows a degree of tolerance.
Did they ever vote for you?
That you have to ask them.
I think they did not.
Well, I never stood for, as far as national elections are concerned -- For personal elections, perhaps this is the first time and I think that this time I’m going to have a majority vote of my family in my favor.
Does it or did it ever bother you?
Why should it bother me? I mean, what’s the big deal? They are entitled to have their different opinions. We really live in a very open environment in the family, where everyone is entitled to have his own position and that’s fine with us.
“Us” being …
Us is me, is Aliza, is everyone. I never questioned their right to be wrong.
So you’re tolerant.
What do you expect me to say? “I’m a liberal, I’m tolerant”? No, I just say that they are tolerant because they tolerated me. I was a minority, not they.
Do you think the family influenced you?
Certainly, the family influenced me. Let’s not be ridiculous. I have been married to Aliza for more than 35 years. So when I finally made this statement, which really changed Israeli politics and maybe the Israeli agenda forever, my wife, Aliza, said, “Thirty-five years of hard work finally bears fruit.” So, I mean, there were attempts over the years to influence me. Only a dumb person can say that being in love with one person for 35 years, living with him, being married to him will not influence his point of view. I’m sure it would. Don’t forget that at home, at the end of the day, I’m still a minority.
In terms of?
In terms of the overall perspective. They support me now, I guess they will vote for me, but they hold me very tight and say, “Hey, Dad, you better behave yourself.” So I’m trying.
Munther Dajani [dean of the Faculty of Arts at Al Quds University in Jerusalem and director of the Issam Sartawi Center for the Advancement of Peace and Democracy] was disappointed by your speech.
I’m not surprised that some Palestinians have much greater desires for Israeli concessions. I believe that peace will be achieved more rapidly when the Palestinians are able to say what they are ready to compromise. The fact is that I do say, of course, that I am ready to compromise most of the territories and pull out from most of the territories and dismantle settlements. I never heard any Palestinians saying the same. So I’m not surprised that he’s unhappy. The day that he will be happy, there will be peace.
How about Jerusalem?
Look, for 2,000 years, Jews were praying and crying and dying to return to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, for all of its history, was never a capital of any other nation but the Jewish people. All our lives, there was nothing that we prayed for more or cried for more and yearned for more than to return back to Jerusalem. We are ready for many compromises, but we are not going to cut out the heart of our Jewish history.
Look, the Temple Mount is the birthplace of the Jewish people. This is going forever to remain in the hands of the Jewish people.
There are other neighborhoods.
We’ll talk about it.
We’ll talk about it. I think it’s too early to even discuss it. But the heart will remain the heart of the Jewish people, and this is the Temple Mount and the Old City.
What are you going to do about the Hamas?
This is certainly a new dimension to the ongoing conflict between us and the Palestinians. Not that the others are nicer or softer, but there is a fundamental difference between, let’s say, Fatah or the PLO and the Hamas. Hamas is a fundamentalist, extremist, terrorist organization, intimately linked to Iran. By its very nature, it is not prepared to accept the reality of the existence of Israel, nor the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. While the other organizations are extreme enough in their demands from Israel, the Hamas ideologically is opposed to the very right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state because of deep religious convictions. In a way, this is the epitome of what has been going on now in the world -- the extreme Islamic attitude that doesn’t have any degree of tolerance to the existence of any other ways of life.
So what are you going to do? They’re our neighbors.
They are neighbors and, most certainly, they will be neighbors. But, of course, that raises serious questions about the chances for a political accommodation between us and them because they are not in the game altogether. They don’t have any interest. There is maybe one advantage I can see through the clouds of the Hamas. Up until now, Hamas was very dominant without being up front. So every time we raised our apprehension about the situation, the answer was, “What do you want? The government is made of more moderate people, more acceptable political attitudes, and you can try and accommodate with these.” Now that Hamas is up front, the differences are very clear. You can’t fool around, you can’t come to Israel and say, “Hey, these are good people.” No! They are not good people. They are what they are, and therefore, you can’t bypass these differences. You have to address yourselves to the issues. And maybe it presents, for the Palestinian people, a serious dilemma that they will have to come to terms with first, before we continue on a mutual basis.
You don’t see any accommodations with Abu Mazen and the Hamas?
No. That’s precisely the problem. You take Abu Mazen and Hamas together. But there is a big difference. Abu Mazen is a decent guy -- weak, unable to take the necessary measures, but fundamentally, a person whose commitment is on the right side. You have Hamas, whose whole nature is against everything that we believe in, that we can live with or that Americans, can live with, that any of the Western civilizations can live with. So that presents the real difference, the real conflict between us and the Palestinians on the edge.
Is no accommodation possible at this point?
No, I don’t believe -- we just heard the candidate for prime minister on behalf of the Hamas who said, very comfortably, very quietly, “We don’t want to make peace with Israel; we don’t intend to make peace with Israel.” So, you know, what kind of conditions are we talking about?
What do you stand for? What’s your plan?
What do I stand for is one thing, what do I plan is another thing. Let’s put things in the right place. I feel that this is a window of opportunity that due to historical circumstances, if elected, I may be given the opportunity to try and shape the future of my nation. This is an enormous historical responsibility, and what I want to do is to dictate the borders of the state of Israel and fix them, to shape the physical size of the state of Israel. And thus, maybe, put the conflict between us and the Palestinians in a more limited framework and control it in a more effective manner. To minimize it, to reduce the level of conflict to the inevitable; to separate ourselves from the Palestinian community, which we are engaged with now on a daily basis; and to be able to focus again on the internal lives of the Jewish community here and to develop the potential that we have to the maximum.
I believe that this country has the greatest potential on Earth. What we have achieved in the last, almost 60 years, in this very small, tortured country is beyond anything which was done anyplace in the world, and it’s just the beginning. But in order to continue to project the greatest innovation or the new technologies to the world, as we’ve been doing already in the last few years, in order to improve the quality of life, in order to improve art and culture to the levels that we can, we need to be able to focus on ourselves rather than to engage on a daily basis in confrontations with our neighbors.
Does this mean having fixed borders?
Having fixed borders, that’s right.
Tell me about the idea of the Jewish majority.
Look. Between Jordan and the sea, there are 6.5 million Jews, maybe 4.5 million to 5 million Palestinians. In a matter of time -- 10 years, 15 years, 20 years -- it comes very rapidly -- in no time, suddenly 10 years pass away. The Arabs may become a majority and that will change entirely the nature, the raison d’être of the state of Israel. And I don’t want to wait until it happens because then it will be too late. So I have to go ahead of events to dictate historical developments in directions that are concurrent with the fundamental interests of the Jewish community here. I don’t want to rule or control or administer non-Jews; I don’t want them to live as part of my country without full political rights and civil liberties. It’s either they are part of us and then they have equal rights, precisely as we do, or they’re not part of us and then let’s separate.
I don’t want to have a bi-national state. A bi-national state is a prescription for endless confrontations, violent confrontations that will bring more bloodshed and more pain for the people, for both sides and also a Jewish minority.
But even if it’s not a minority, even if it’s 55 percent against 45 percent, this is a terrible situation that will create endless violence between us and them. I want to avoid it, so the alternative is only one -- separate. Separate in a most friendly manner, in a most dignified way. That’s what I am trying to accomplish. And that will lead me into fixing the borders for the state of Israel so that we will be able to focus on our own affairs in our own country, with our own people, without getting involved daily in collisions, in confrontations, in check posts, in terror, in suicidal attack, in blood, pain, bleeding wounds that destroy the joy of our life.
Is the wall and evacuation part of it?
Of course, we will have to pull out from territories, which are now administered by the state of Israel. Where exactly, to what extent -- that I know inside me, but I’m not going to share with you now because I think it’s too early. We are in the middle of an election campaign; it’s not the right time to spell it out in details, but I have it in mind. I will discuss it with President Bush after elections, hopefully, if I win. But this is what I have in mind. So it will involve pulling out from territories; it will involve fixing new lines; it will involve creating a separating fence that will defend the people of Israel against terror from the outside; it will involve all kinds of other measures necessary to provide full security for every individual in Israel. But not by being involved with the Palestinian community in their own cities.
What is the relationship, if any, between the Road Map and disengagement?
The Road Map is the framework for the comprehensive process that ought to lead into permanent agreement between us and the Palestinians. Disengagement was the initial step by Israel. Not having a partner to deal with, we decided not to wait until the partner will mature to serious, meaningful negotiations. We started to pull out ourselves on a unilateral basis from Gaza and from some settlements in the West Bank. But I think that what was important is that we signaled both to ourselves and our neighbors as well as to the international community that when Israel says that we are ready for a major move, we mean it, and this is why we did what we did -- so that no one can question the integrity of our commitments when we say that we are ready to pull out.