PM Olmert responds to questions about the war in Lebanon and relations with the Palestinians, says willing to talk to Assad.

 Interview with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on "Al Arabiya"


"Al Arabiya"

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was interviewed on "Al Arabiya", a 24-hour Arabic-language news channel based in Dubai.

Interviewer: Hello, Mr. Prime Minister. Thank you for your time.

You have often spoken lately of the possibility for an overall regional settlement with Arab countries, the moderate ones as well; but it seems, and this is no secret, that the Arab nations – perhaps even the moderate ones – feel that you are too weak too make historical decisions and are more interested in normalization and no more than that.

PM Olmert: Naturally, I cannot speak for others; I can only speak for myself and for the State of Israel. I wish to remind you that I am the first Israeli leader, and the only one at the level of prime minister, to say to all the Arab countries, following the Riyadh Summit, "We do not reject the Arab League’s peace initiative. Quite the contrary, let’s talk about it," and I am willing to talk about it.

So I don’t know the basis for this assumption that I want a de facto arrangement and normalization. I want a peace settlement, first and foremost with the Palestinians; and I am ready to sit down and talk about the Arab initiative with all the rest of the Arab nations with whom we are not at peace. Definitely.

Interviewer: If you’ll allow me, I’d like to take us back a year. We are currently marking one year since the Lebanon war. Would you act the same way as then, meaning would you start an overall campaign against Lebanon and Hizbullah?

PM Olmert: First of all, I did not start any campaign. I wish to remind you that the ones who started the campaign was the Hizbullah organization. The Hizbullah organization was the one who kidnapped the soldiers, killed Israeli soldiers, and attacked the northern cities in Israel; and if you would ask this question of Nasrallah, he would certainly give you an answer, because he said after the war that if he had known for certain what would happen, he wouldn’t have started the war. So, first of all, he started the war.

The question I need to answer, and this is a legitimate question, is whether I would have responded as I did. Today I am convinced, more than ever, that I would have responded the same way and I am glad that I did. This war caused much suffering to many people. It caused much suffering to a great many Israelis, to a great many residents of the State of Israel who live in the north and had to live for 33 days in bomb shelters; and it caused a great deal of suffering to the Lebanese, who suffered as a result of this war. These Lebanese need to draw a conclusion concerning the Hizbullah and the suffering that the Hizbullah caused them.

There is no doubt that war always entails suffering and that is the last thing we want. I believe that most people don’t want suffering and don’t want civilians to be harmed. The Hizbullah is a terrorist organization. The Hizbullah is an organization that wants to hurt the State of Israel and to kill Jews.

We have no problem with Lebanon. According to the UN resolution, we do not occupy any area in Lebanon. Why do they have to attack us; why do they need to kidnap Israeli soldiers? Why do they need to kill Israeli residents? Why do they have to fire Katyushas and rockets on Israeli communities? It’s clear that when they do that, we respond. I want it to be clear that we will never be reconciled to the possibility of someone shooting at us without responding. There can be no such thing.

Interviewer: Are you telling me, Mr. Prime Minister, that you for your part made no mistakes in this war, even though the Winograd report, which has received a lot of attention in the Arab press, indicates that there were indeed fatal problems with the management of the war?

PM Olmert: I don’t want to get into a debate about the Winograd report through Al Arabiya. Of course there were mistakes. The question is not the mistakes. The question is internal, inside Israel, if the army units should have been deployed in one way or another. The army will surely find the proper response to this very important question, but this doesn’t address the fundamental question.

In the fundamental question, on July 12, Hizbullah controlled all of southern Lebanon and today Hizbullah does not control southern Lebanon. On July 12, Hizbullah had control of the border with Israel and today Hizbullah does not control the border with Israel. On July 12, Hizbullah could have done whatever it wanted to in southern Lebanon and today the Lebanese army is there and the international UNIFIL army is there, with soldiers from Moslem countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, other places and European states.

Interviewer: You did say that [UN Security Council Resolution] 1701 is perhaps the clearest accomplishment of the Lebanon war. But then, on the other side as well, in Hizbullah they say, "It would only take 24 hours to deploy again in the south." Do you really think this is a non-liquid situation that can be controlled?

PM Olmert: Look, I don’t want to wage a war of slogans. It’s not my way. I don’t need this. It’s a fact that there is an international army in Lebanon and this international army has gone into Hizbullah’s bunkers, taken out weapons and exploded them. And meanwhile we don’t see Nasrallah strolling along the streets of Beirut. Ask him why not.

Interviewer: I’m asking you. If he goes for a walk, will something happen to him? Is he at risk?

PM Olmert: I don’t know. Ask him why he doesn’t walk the streets of Beirut.

Interviewer: He’s being careful, in the meantime, but is he a target in Israel’s eyes?

PM Olmert: I can tell you one thing: I don’t wage wars of honor or personal wars.

Interviewer: The army, in any case – I’m getting back to the subject of the army. In the army they say, and I think the Minister of Defense talked about this as well, that after the war there was a kind of deterioration in Israel’s deterrent ability and this ability needs to be rebuilt. Deterrence is something you don’t need to use, when it exists. Do you think this is the right way? Will something like this happen?

Prime Minister: No.

Interviewer: There is a fear that in Gaza, with Syria, it will erupt, perhaps to restore the power of deterrence. At least that’s what the Arab in the street is afraid of.

PM Olmert: I’m glad of this opportunity to speak on al Arabia, because I imagine that a great many Arab residents in many Arab countries will hear us. We have no interest at all in fighting Arabs anywhere. We are not looking for a fight. We want to make peace. We do not need to restore deterrence; we have acquired deterrence.

Let’s look at things the way they really are. Prior to July 12, there was no deterrence. If there had been, then Hizbullah wouldn’t have attacked us. The Hizbullah attacked us because it did not feel deterrence from Israel’s side. After the war, Nasrallah felt deterred. It’s a fact that he said if he had know then what he knows now, he wouldn’t have started it. Now that he knows, he’s not so eager to start anything. So I don’t think we have a problem with deterrence.

I think there is a problem that the Arab world needs to cope with, and that problem is that you have too many extremists, fundamentalists who deal in terror. They pose a danger, and not only to Israel. They endanger the entire Arab world. Tell me, have you ever seen a more brutal murder of Palestinians than what Hamas did to Fatah? No Israeli did that. Israelis didn’t do it; Israeli soldiers didn’t do it. We never treated the Palestinians like that. Hamas murdered Fatah in the most brutal way in the world. 160 people were murdered. Sick people were pulled out of their hospital beds, thrown off the roof, and smashed. Completely defenseless civilians were shot in the legs and bodies.

This is part of the Arab reality. It has nothing to do with us. It’s part of the extremism that exists in the Arab countries; it’s part of the extremism among certain Islamic movements; and it first and foremost harms the Arab states and the Moslem civilians. The overwhelming majority of Moslems are people who want peace. I have no doubt that they hate this violence.

Interviewer: Sir, recently you have spoken much about your fear that perhaps the Syrians will have a misconception of what you described and things will accidentally ignite. Are you actually afraid that the situation might deteriorate to the point of war?

PM Olmert: I would be very happy to make peace with Syria. I don’t want to fight Syria. I am saying this to Bashar Assad: "Bashar Assad, you know that I am willing to negotiate peace directly with you. And you know, and you always say that you are willing to negotiate only through the Americans." Bashar Assad does not want to sit down with me. He wants to sit with the Americans. The Americans don’t want to sit with him. I am willing to sit with him, if he is willing to sit with me. We will talk about peace, not about war. I don’t want to fight Syria.

Interviewer: So are you inviting him to Jerusalem?

PM Olmert: Assad has already heard from me. He heard many things from me. I can’t tell you what he knows.

Interviewer: I would like to hear.

PM Olmert: He will confirm to you that he heard from me. But his answer is that he wants to talk to the Americans, but the President of the United States said, "What do you want from me? I don’t want to come between you and Ehud Olmert. Do you want to talk to Ehud Olmert? Does Ehud Olmert want to talk to you? Sit down and talk." I am willing to talk to him.

Interviewer: Where?

PM Olmert: Anywhere he agrees to.

Interviewer: Recently I was in the Golan covering a combined forces exercise. I got the impression that a Syrian minister spoke on "Al Arabiya" and said, "Read this as if Israel is preparing itself for war; it will start the fighting and the Syrians will oppose the war." He said that the time of sitting and waiting for negotiations is over.

PM Olmert: I don’t know how to respond to something some Syrian minister might have said. There are too many Syrian ministers talking and too many Israeli ministers talking. Not everyone who talks needs to be taken seriously.

We are not preparing for war, that I can tell you. We are not preparing for war. We have an army; the army needs to practice; that’s natural and normal. The Syrian army does drills; the Israel army does drills; other armies do drills. It’s part of life. We are not preparing for war. We have no interest in war.

Interviewer: The assessment is, even if things are not said publicly, that the United States really isn’t very happy with the idea of Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Was that your impression?

PM Olmert: I suggest you talk to the Americans. Hear their response. I am not their spokesman; I cannot speak for their policy.
Interviewer: You always talk like President Bush about this matter of the "axis of evil" – Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, I don’t know – maybe Hamas as well. I mean, wouldn’t it be logical to start even some kind of discussion with the Syrians?

PM Olmert: As I told you before, I want to talk to the Syrians and for the Syrians to talk to me. They want to talk to America. I want to talk to them. I told them that I want to talk to them.

Interviewer: I’ve felt recently that Israel seems to have relinquished, I would say, its policy of evasiveness on the nuclear issue. There are many quotes from previous interviews with you in the world press in this direction. Is this some kind of threat against Iran, which is also trying to go nuclear?

PM Olmert: I think I’ve said this many times, and I reiterate – we have no other policy. Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. This is our past, current, and future policy. We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

Interviewer: Are you counting on the attempt by the Americans and the world to prevent Ahmadinejad from having a nuclear bomb within a few years? Are you relying on that?

PM Olmert: I am not relying blindly on anything. I am troubled, but I believe that the Americans truly wish to prevent the Iranians from acquiring unconventional weapons and that they will do many things to prevent this, and I hope that along with the Russians and Europeans, through Security Council resolutions, they will succeed in preventing these things.

Interviewer: Sir, Hamas now virtually controls the Gaza Strip and there are also signs that it can impose quiet if it wants to. They released Al Johnston. They say they control the Islamic army. Why are you in fact convinced that it isn’t a partner for negotiations, when for years the PLO wasn’t a partner, and in the end it signed the Oslo Accords with the State of Israel?

PM Olmert: Tell me, how is possible to trust a Palestinian factor who murders Palestinians like Hamas did? Is that the normal agenda for Palestinians? That kind of murder of Palestinians by Palestinians, like Hamas perpetrated? If they murder Palestinians like that, what might they do to us, if they could?

So I am extremely cautious. When I see a murder organization, it’s a murder organization. When I see how they murder Palestinians, it shocks me. We do not hate the Palestinians. I’m telling you, as an Israeli civilian, as a Jew who grew up in this country, who has seen Arabs his entire life, I’m telling you no one understands Palestinian suffering better than we do. I never claimed and never felt that suffering is only our lot. I have no doubt that the circumstances of the establishment of the State of Israel involved suffering for a great many Palestinians. Many Palestinians suffered and suffering was part of their existence for many years.

We are not indifferent to Palestinian suffering; we do not ignore Palestinian suffering. We feel it and respect it, and we want to find a way to end it, to end our suffering. We have suffered here; we were forced to fight for decades against our will. We had to defend ourselves from anti-Jewish, sometimes anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist extremism that accumulated over the years, but we always wanted peace. We made peace with Egypt; we made peace with Jordan; we signed agreements with the Palestinians. We want to continue solving the problems with the Palestinians to help them find a solution to their suffering. We are willing to be part of this effort.

Of course there have to be two states. A national Palestinian state and a national Jewish state. Jews will come to the Jewish state. Palestinians and Palestinian refugees will come to the Palestinian state. We are willing to be part of the attempt to solve this. What do you think? That when I see a Palestinian’s suffering it doesn’t move me? That it doesn’t weigh heavily upon me? That it doesn’t make me sad? I think there has to be an effort in which we invest most of our energy in ending the mutual suffering that is an integral part of the reality in the Middle East.

Interviewer: Sir, if you were a Palestinian in some refugee camp, would you really believe Israel and the United States that after almost 60 years there is now a solution, that Israel is really serious? Could you as a Palestinian trust Israel?

PM Olmert: First of all, I would say that if I were a Palestinian, I would ask myself questions about the Palestinian leadership, and how serious the Palestinians are. How willing are the Palestinians to abandon the way of terror and fighting, and to make peace and take care of the Palestinians? Where are the Palestinians who care about Palestinians? I care more about the Palestinians than some Palestinians do. Hamas murders Palestinians. It doesn’t care about Palestinians. It cares about some kind of extreme, violent, fundamentalist worldview that cannot bring any decent future to the Palestinians.

If I were Palestinian, and there are many Palestinians like this, who live in various places in the world, who are in touch with us. What, do you think we live with some kind of distorted perception, always typical of anti-Semites, that the Palestinians have something wrong with them? The Palestinians, thank the Lord, are people who want what every person wants. They want to live; they want to get up in the morning, send their children to school; they want to have a good life; they want what every normal person wants.

Unfortunately, the Palestinian movement includes extremist elements who never accepted the existence of the Jewish state. Not everyone. I believe Abu Mazen. I believe Salaam Fayyad. They say it and act like it. I don’t believe Khaled Mashal. Anyone who can murder Palestinians as he did can murder Jews too. I am not willing to speak with him; I am willing to speak with Palestinians who want to make peace, and together with them to try to solve the human problems and the problem of suffering caused to the Palestinians, like the suffering caused to the Jews.

Interviewer: You, sir, noticeably always speak a lot in praise of President Mahmoud Abbas, but some, even on the Palestinian side, say that these bear hugs only weaken the man. That means he is perceived as being dependent on Israel and the United States, so don’t you have any second thoughts in this matter, even media-wise?

PM Olmert: In this matter there is an expression meaning: "Damned if you do and damned if you don’t." If I were to condemn Abbas, you would say, "Here, you see, you don’t want to talk to us. There is someone decent and moderate to talk to, and you don’t want to talk to him." If you say that he can be talked to, then you immediately turn him into a collaborator of the State of Israel.

Listen: to avoid any misunderstanding, I am against Abu Mazen. When he tells me how he wants to solve the problems, I am opposed to many of the things he says, because I think he is saying things that are not good for me. They are good for the Palestinians; they are not good for the State of Israel. And we have some very difficult disagreements. He is not an easy man. He negotiates much more effectively to benefit the Palestinians than the murderers do. There’s nothing to talk about with the ones who murder, like Khaled Mashal. The whole world hates and dismisses them.

Abu Mazen is a very difficult opponent, because everyone likes, respects and wants to help him, So there is no bear hug and we are not enamored of him and we do not hate him. We respect him as the Palestinian leader who has to be sat with and we are willing to sit with him.

Interviewer: You say that everyone hates and cannot stand Hamas, but a democratic choice was made by the Palestinian people who put Hamas in power. Things inside Palestine developed into a civil war. Almost all nations have had civil wars; millions fell on the road to independence.

PM Olmert: Listen, before Hamas was elected, Abu Mazen was elected. So, first of all, with all due respect, the one who was elected by the Palestinian people to lead them is Abu Mazen. Secondly, what percent of the votes did Hamas receive in the elections? 35%. Is that all of the Palestinian people? That’s some of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people did not elect terror. Hamas did not take advantage of the opportunity. When they were elected, they could have decided to become a political organization and to cease terror. Instead, they thought that the elections gave them a mandate for their terror and so they thwarted themselves and thwarted the Palestinian people.

Interviewer: But they are talking about the ’67 borders, which is considered a radical turnaround in Hamas thought.

PM Olmert: My friend, Hamas says they do not want peace with Israel. Period. So which borders are you speaking of? They are not talking about the ’67 borders as borders for peace with the Jewish state that will be within those borders. They are talking about the ’67 borders as a transit station before destroying the State of Israel. Do you think that I can accept that? Do you think that any kind of serious party in the world is capable of accepting that, that someone seriously sees this as a kind of basis for a future solution?

Interviewer: Recently I heard Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, and other generals here and there, say that perhaps peace really is made with enemies; peace cannot be made with Fatah, but with the Palestinian people, of whom Hamas is in fact an integral part. Why is nobody trying to think of a way perhaps to attract Hamas away from its enmity with itself?

PM Olmert: I think you need to direct that question to Hamas. I have said many a time that if Hamas accepts the principles of the Quartet, recognizes the existence of the State of Israel and the right of the State of Israel to exist, and stops the terror, we will sit with Hamas. I did not rule that out. But sitting with an organization that says it’s looking for a way to kill me? No one is going to kill me. No force can destroy us. It can only cause us suffering. I don’t want to cause suffering. I don’t want to cause suffering to the Jews, I don’t want to cause suffering to the Arabs, and I don’t want to cause suffering to the Palestinians. The Riyadh Commission said that the Arab League’s peace initiative is a basis. Come to me; let’s sit and talk about it.

In fact, I’m not running away from anything. I’m not avoiding anything. I say ahlan wa sahlan. Let’s sit and discuss the Arab peace initiative, if that’s what you want. We will sit with the Palestinians and talk. I sit with Abu Mazen; we argue; it’s very difficult with him, but we talk about peace. About the Arab peace initiative. If they come here for a discussion, I will be very happy. If they invite me somewhere else to discuss the Arab peace initiative, I will go discuss it.

Interviewer: One last question, by your leave, sir. Yesterday we heard that the ministers’ committee is proposing a new law making Gaza a foreign entity, and the question is whether you honestly believe that someone who lost Gaza to Hamas can reach a sustainable agreement with Israel, or perhaps you also have other thoughts and ideas about the organization?

PM Olmert: Listen well. There is no ministers’ committee, there is no such plan, and it’s all nonsense. Do you know what nonsense is? It’s all nonsense. There never was such a thing. One and half million Palestinians live in Gaza. Do you think that I believe they can be separated from the rest of the Palestinians? That’s a fantasy that someone sold you.

We do not intend to separate Gaza from Judea and Samaria. We will fight Hamas if Hamas continues with terror, but that is unrelated to the people living in Gaza. We will send them humanitarian aid. We will strive to help them. They do not need to be punished because of crazy, extremist, violent leadership that wants to kill Palestinians and wants to kill the chance for peace.

Interviewer: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for this interview.