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Israeli PM: Tough Choices Ahead in Mideast Peace Process

November 27, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to restart peace talks at a Maryland summit Tuesday, promising further negotiations toward a peace treaty and the development of a Palestinian state. Gwen Ifill talks to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the U.S.-backed talks and the Mideast peace process.
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RAY SUAREZ: Even as President Bush announced the Israelis and Palestinians would immediately resume their long-stalled negotiations, he acknowledged the path to peace would be challenging.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Today, Palestinian and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realize their aspirations is key to realizing their own aspirations. Both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state.

Such a state will provide Palestinians with a chance to lead lives of freedom and purpose and dignity. Such a state will help provide the Israelis with something they have been seeking for generations: to live in peace with their neighbors.

Achieving this goal is not going to be easy. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago.

RAY SUAREZ: The last effort by an American president to bring about a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict collapsed seven years ago at Camp David and was followed by an upsurge of violence in the region.

Today, President Bush, with one year left in office, inserted himself into the peace process, hosting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and leaders and diplomats from more than 40 other nations at the U.S. Naval Academy.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Our purpose here in Annapolis is not to conclude an agreement. Rather, it’s to launch negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. For the rest of us, our job is to encourage the parties in this effort and to give them the support they need to succeed.

In light of recent developments, some have suggested that now is not the right time to pursue peace. I disagree. I believe now is precisely the right time to begin these negotiations for a number of reasons.

RAY SUAREZ: The president went on to say Abbas and Olmert both understood why they need to move now.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States is proud to host this meeting, and we reaffirm the path to peace set out in the road map. Yet, in the end, the outcome of the negotiations they launch here depends on the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. America will do everything in our power to support their quest for peace, but we cannot achieve it for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Palestinian President Abbas then offered some of his conditions for peace.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator): I must defend, in all sincerity and candor and without wavering, the right of our people to see a new dawn without occupation, without settlement, without separation walls, without prisons where thousands of prisoners are detained, without assassinations, without siege, without barriers around villages and mosques.

RAY SUAREZ: Abbas then spoke directly to Israelis.

MAHMOUD ABBAS: I say to the citizens of Israel, in this extraordinary day, you are our neighbors on this small land. Neither us nor you are begging for peace from each other; it is a common interest for us and for you. The peace and freedom is a right for us, inasmuch as peace and security is a right for you and for us.

RAY SUAREZ: For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert addressed Arab leaders.

EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel (through translator): Anyone who wants to make peace with us, we say to them from the bottom of our hearts, “Welcome.” We cannot continue to stand by indefinitely and to watch you standing and watching from the sidelines, watching the peace train, as it were, going by.

The time has come to end the boycott, the alienation, and the obliviousness towards the state of Israel. It does not help you, and it hurts us.

RAY SUAREZ: The first Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are planned for December 12th and are to continue every two weeks after that.

JIM LEHRER: This afternoon, Gwen Ifill interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Olmert. Tomorrow, she’ll talk with the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat. She spoke with Olmert at his Washington hotel.

'Painful choices' ahead

Ehud Olmert
Israeli Prime Minister
The goal of these negotiations is to reach a two-state solution, that there will be a Palestinian state -- viable, strong, democratic -- with all the necessary ingredients that will make life so much better for the Palestinians.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome.

EHUD OLMERT: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: You said today in Annapolis that there would have to be painful choices made in order to achieve peace. As you well know, this has all been said before. What's different now?

EHUD OLMERT: Well, I think the most fundamental difference is that there is a different type of relationships between the leadership of the Palestinians and the Israelis. There is a greater trust. That in itself is not sufficient, but it's a very good foundation upon which you can build meaningful negotiations. And we certainly hope to do that; that's precisely our goal.

GWEN IFILL: The president said, President Bush said today there would be tough choices ahead. I want to ask you about some of those tough choices. Are you willing as part of these negotiations, or what comes out of these negotiations, to lift checkpoints and unblock roads?

EHUD OLMERT: We are already doing it right now, so we didn't even wait for negotiations. We want to improve the quality of life for the Palestinians. This is a temporary situation, of course.

At the end of the day, the goal of these negotiations is to reach a two-state solution, that there will be a Palestinian state -- viable, strong, democratic -- with all the necessary ingredients that will make life so much better for the Palestinians. So that's part of what we're trying to do.

We already removed checkpoints and roadblocks, and we will continue to do it, of course, all depending on whether the Palestinians will be capable of effectively fighting terror, because if there will be terror, no matter what we do, nothing will change. If they will effectively fight terror, as we hope they will, then everything will change.

GWEN IFILL: That's a big "if." How do you come by your confidence that the Palestinians are willing to do what you would like to see?

EHUD OLMERT: First of all, there is a different Palestinian leadership today, which is committed to fight terror. They say they are making the necessary preparations now to move towards it. They started a new program, supported by us, to put their own security in one of the major cities in the West Bank, in Nablus. And hopefully, if this program will succeed, they will move into other cities, and will take over the security needs, and will do it effectively.

So there are big "ifs" indeed. No one guarantees that everything will go as we pray it will. They have to try, and we have to try. They have to be ready, and we are ready to make these kinds of painful compromises and change positions in order to advance the peace process between the two of us.

Demographic issues remain delicate

Ehud Olmert
Israeli Prime Minister
I mean, no one seriously can think that there will be two states, one Palestinian and one in which the Palestinians will become a majority, if all the Palestinians will be brought back into the state of Israel.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the peace process, where it left off, which is at the road map, which is where you're picking up now. One of the responsibilities that Israel would have to agree to as part of this process is to freeze the construction of settlements. You have about 270,000 settlers now on the West Bank. How do you propose to do that?

EHUD OLMERT: Well, it's been already agreed, and I think it was re-emphasized in a famous letter sent by President Bush to the former prime minister of Israel, Mr. Sharon, on the 14th of April, 2004, that in the pattern of the agreement that one day will be reached between us and the Palestinians, the demographic changes will have to be considered and that the population centers most likely will have to be taken into account.

But we don't build new settlements in the territories. I think I made a clear statement in the cabinet session last week about it. And we are not going to confiscate any land in order to build settlements.

And that's part of the negotiating agenda. We are going to sit with the Palestinians and discuss the necessary accommodations in order to allow them to have a Palestinian state and for Israel to contribute to this.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about demographic changes, that comes to the question of Jerusalem. One-third of Jerusalem are Palestinians. How do you propose to divide Jerusalem, as they would like to see you do?

EHUD OLMERT: I admire the sharpness of your questions, but this is one of the issues which I'm sure the Palestinians will raise in negotiations. And I think the time will come that we will address ourselves to these issues in a most sincere, in a most open way. But I'm not going, of course, to negotiate with you today.

GWEN IFILL: Why not?

I'd like to talk to you about what Palestinians call the right of return. Is there room for negotiation on that point?

EHUD OLMERT: Again, no one in negotiations can limit the other side from raising issues, but of course everyone knows that the whole idea is of a two-state solution, which means a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people and the state of Israel, which is the homeland of the Jewish people.

I mean, no one seriously can think that there will be two states, one Palestinian and one in which the Palestinians will become a majority, if all the Palestinians will be brought back into the state of Israel.

So the idea is to have two nation-states separated, living alongside each other. The state of Israel will be Jewish and, of course, as it is. And the Palestinian state will be the natural place for all the refugees of the Palestinians to be resettled in.

Negotiating on a personal level

Ehud Olmert
Israeli Prime Minister
There are differences, but there is a basis for talk. There is a basis for understanding, and I believe that there is a basis for compromise.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things you've referred to several times today is that the new leadership, the trust -- or I don't know if trust is too big a word between you and Mahmoud Abbas.

EHUD OLMERT: Trust. Yes, personal trust, there is, yes.

GWEN IFILL: How would you describe your relationship?

EHUD OLMERT: Well, what we tried to do in the last few months was to just sit, the two of us, in a small room, in most cases, in my study in my home in Jerusalem, and just the two of us talk to each other.

GWEN IFILL: No staff?

EHUD OLMERT: And we say to each other -- no staff, no one, no takers, nothing. Just two human beings, each holds an enormous responsibility for his people, speaking to each other without any barriers, without any restrictions, just spelling out what they have in their heart, talking to each other, trying to build trust, rapport, understanding between the two.

I think that we have gone a long way. Of course, we all know that he represents the Palestinian people, and I represent the state of Israel and the Jewish people. And there are differences, but there is a basis for talk. There is a basis for understanding, and I believe that there is a basis for compromise.

GWEN IFILL: There are critics in Israel who feel that you're giving him too much, that this trust that you talk about is ceding ground which Israel cannot afford to cede.

EHUD OLMERT: Well, there are genuine fears in the state of Israel based on -- and I said it today in my speech -- on the past experiences we had with the Palestinians. We made concessions in the past, and they didn't necessarily help. We pulled out from Gaza entirely, and they keep shooting some rockets on tens of thousands of Israelis living in the south part of Israel.

So there is risk-taking here. There are uncertainties which we will have to deal with. My conviction is that Israel is strong enough to try carefully to move forward in spite of these risks.

But, of course, we will not compromise on the security of the people of Israel. No one can expect Israel to do it. I don't believe that any country in the world would have acted in the same kind of restraint as we do now, when we have these Qassam rockets falling on the heads of civilians in the south part of Israel. And we restrain our reactions, but we will not compromise on the security of the people of Israel. That I can guarantee you.

Now, there is always opposition. There are many people in Israel, based on the experience of the past, that are very afraid that we will not be led into or that we will not be seduced or that we will not be carried away too much with unnecessary concessions that might jeopardize the security of the state of Israel.

I think that we're handling the situation with care, with responsibility, but we are looking forward. And I'm determined to do everything that I can in order to exhaust every possible opportunity to move forward with the Palestinians.

Seeing realistic miracles

Ehud Olmert
Israeli Prime Minister
I'm always reminded of what Ben-Gurion said, many years ago, the founding father of the state of Israel. He said, 'A realist in the Middle East is someone who believes in miracles.'

GWEN IFILL: The plan that was described today envisioned a one-year timetable. Can all of this get done in that time?

EHUD OLMERT: I don't know. I said I will make every possible effort. I don't want to gain time. I don't want to waste time. I want to sit down and talk.

Israel is not pushed by anyone. No one pushes us. No one is forcing us. We are the ones that initiated this process. We are the ones that convinced Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, to meet regularly and to try and advance the situation...

GWEN IFILL: Not the United States?

EHUD OLMERT: Oh, the United States was very helpful. I am so grateful to your president, President Bush, for his inspiration and his support, and for Secretary Rice, for her relentless activities day and night in order to advance it.

But it's first and foremost because we wanted it, and we are willing to move forward. So we will try. If we can reach an agreement within a year, we'll be very happy. If it will take more time, it will take more time. We will be trying seriously.

GWEN IFILL: President Bush, Mahmoud Abbas, and you all have domestic political challenges right now.

EHUD OLMERT: Who doesn't?

GWEN IFILL: Well, I don't know.

EHUD OLMERT: We're democracies. We're democracies.

GWEN IFILL: Everybody does.

EHUD OLMERT: That's part of life. Yes, sure. You have to cope with it. This is part of life. You have supporters. You have opponents. You have opposition. You have coalition. You have to be able to sort your way amongst all these different elements.

My conviction is that, when it comes down to these fundamental issues of historical proportions for the life of my country, you have to look beyond the political difficulties and to look at the ultimate goal of what is really good for your country and what is really constructive for the relations that you want to have with your neighbors. And if you do that, you'll find also the political solutions necessary in order to advance it.

GWEN IFILL: But realistically do you have the leverage -- you've said it's a very difficult thing you are trying to undertake. Do you collectively have the political leverage to get it done?

EHUD OLMERT: Well, if you ask some people, they'll tell you that they are utterly surprised that we reached that point. They didn't anticipate that we'll be able to do it. And I tell you now that a year from now I'm sure that they will say, "We didn't believe that they will move as they did and that they will continue to move."

I'm an optimistic person. You can't be a prime minister of Israel if you're not an optimist. You have to be. And I'm always reminded of what Ben-Gurion said, many years ago, the founding father of the state of Israel. He said, "A realist in the Middle East is someone who believes in miracles."

So I am not that kind of realist, but I am someone who is optimist, who is prepared to take risks, who is prepared to move forward, who is prepared to give credit to decent people on the other side, and to build up the foundations for what must be ultimately a compromise between us and the Palestinians. That will help create the two-state solution, the two nation-states, the Palestinian state, homeland of the Palestinian people, and the state of Israel, homeland of the Jewish people.

GWEN IFILL: Will this take miracles?

EHUD OLMERT: It will take a lot of imagination, a lot of creativity, a lot of goodwill, a lot of courage. And I hope that all this together is what will ultimately make the outcome that we all want.

GWEN IFILL: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, thank you very much for joining us.

EHUD OLMERT: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: A reminder that, tomorrow, Gwen will interview Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.