Excerpts from interview with PM Olmert conducted by Nazir Majalli and published in Arabic.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that what was being negotiated with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was not a declaration of principles, an agreement in principle, or a temporary agreement, as stated by the media, but a detailed peace agreement in the full meaning of the word. Olmert added that he was truly optimistic about reaching this agreement by the end of this year. He further said that there has been practical progress in talks on basic matters such as refugees, borders, security arrangements and guarantees. The question of Jerusalem will be left for the last stage because of its explosive nature.
Olmert saw a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Paris during the Mediterranean states conference as unlikely, stressing: "Such a meeting is not my aim in attending the conference." In this context Olmert noted: "It was Syria that urged us to announce the talks between us – not us. They have never done this before. It is positive and important." Olmert expects peace with Syria to be at the expense of relations between Damascus and Teheran.
On the question of Iranian nuclear weapons, Olmert said: "We cannot stand with our hands tied when faced with nuclear armaments held by someone who calls daily for our destruction."
Q: The Arab world dislikes and cannot accept the fact that Israel is not cooperating with the Arab peace initiative. This Initiative was made by all the Arab states, telling Israel as a government and as a people that the entire Arab world is interested in accepting you and having peace with you in exchange for an end of the occupation and giving the Palestinians 22% of Palestine, the rest going to Israel. Why not openly declare you accept it and hold talks on its basis?Call Amr Musa [Secretary General of the Arab League] and give him your support.
A: I have no quarrel with Amr Musa. I am negotiating with the neighboring Arab states. When Qatar wanted to have open relations with Israel why should have we objected?
Q: And the other states?
A: There are some that preferred to have undeclared relations with us.
Q: The traditional policy you repeat does not convince the Arab states. It is felt that acceptance of the Arab initiative would be proof that you have chosen peace and that evading it means you are evading peace. Why not calm these fears?
A: Listen: Israel has fought against five Arab states. We made peace with Egypt and Jordan. We are now talking with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Lebanon still waits. We are willing to talk with them too. I see the Arab initiative as a realistic part of the foundations of peace in addition to Security Council resolutions 224 and 338 and the Roadmap.
Q: Israeli-Arab ties have seen setbacks since the Oslo accords; doesn’t that upset you?
A: What setbacks?
Q: You had ties with Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Mauritania.
A: Our Foreign Minister was in Qatar last month and was given a great welcome.
Q: OK – Qatar. They have good ties with you as well as with Hamas and Hizbullah. Let’s talk about the negotiations with Hamas and Hezbollah for a truce and POW exchanges. Why are things being held up? Are the intelligence services causing obstructions?
A: First, we are not negotiating with those two terrorist organizations. In the south we negotiate through Egypt and in the north through a German mediator. Talks about kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit are continuing intensively. Talks about Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in Lebanon have not been finalized and need more time. Our key negotiating partner for peace is Abu Mazen.
Q: But we hear criticism and complaints about Israeli intentions even from Abu Mazen.
A: We have been holding very serious talks with the Palestinian Authority, with Abu Mazen and Abu Ala [Ahmad Quraye, head of the Palestinian negotiating team] for six months now. Some think this should be enough to end a sixty-year battle but that is mistaken. Yet there has been serious and real progress in the talks.
Q: In which areas has there been progress?
A: The refugee question, borders and security arrangements. As for the issue of Jerusalem we put it aside from the start – I told Abu Mazen that we should not start our talks with the most explosive issue. Had we started with Jerusalem the talks would have soon ended. This is very sensitive, so complicated, with many aspects, so it has been postponed. We began with the easier matters, and that will help us deal with Jerusalem and reach a happy conclusion to this clash.
Q: Do you think there will be a happy conclusion by the end of this year?
Q: What then have you agreed upon? Some say you are talking about a plan to be shelved, or that you will declare some principles of a political solution, or a declaration of intent, and lately we heard about a temporary agreement, so what is the truth?
A: I do not know nor do I care what is said. I know we are working, and hope there will be a detailed agreement about the nature and borders of the State of Palestine next to the State of Israel.
Q: A fully detailed treaty?
A: A treaty with detailed understandings, clear to all sides what is expected from them, each side knowing what is his limit of maneuver.
Q: And you see Abu Mazen as the man with whom you will reach a treaty by the end of the year?
A: I can think of nobody better suited to it; we cooperate on a basis of trust.
Q: There has been doubt about his ability to implement such a treaty. What do you think?
A: It must be put to the test. First we agree. Then we implement the Roadmap. Afterwards we shall see.
Q: What is the purpose of your visit to Egypt tomorrow?
A: This is a routine visit I often make to Egypt to meet President Hosni Mubarak, whom I hold in great esteem. I benefit from his wisdom and rich experience as a leader. As you know he has ruled Egypt since the 1980s and is one of the oldest of world leaders. I enjoy hearing his excellent analyses of the situation and how he puts it in historical perspective.
Q: Do you expect progress in the matter of the POW exchange?
A: I hope so. We are trying. Egypt talks with us and helps, and we are appreciative and hope there will be more of an effort to stop arms smuggling [from Egypt to Gaza].
Q: And if smuggling does not stop?
A: If it does not stop that will be a violation of the agreement and we shall be compelled to use armed force.
Q: And the deal with Hizbullah? There have been attempts by Israeli intelligence, the Mossad, to stop it.
A: The UN envoy is continuing in his efforts; there is no deal yet. I hope it will be concluded soon. There is an internal debate here. No agreement yet. When it happens I shall ask the cabinet to meet and vote on it. I am doing my best to bring the boys home.
Q: Will you be meeting President Assad in Paris next July 13th?
A: I shall be there on that date to take part in an important conference, at the invitation of French President Sarkozy, to unite the Mediterranean countries. I support this event. President Assad will also be there. Maybe we shall meet, maybe not. Such a meeting is not my aim in attending the conference, and the important thing is not a meeting but the peace negotiations we are holding.
Q: As you see the political events developing in Israel and in these negotiations, could a meeting happen?
A: As we hold peace talks, a meeting is bound to occur at some stage, and peace cannot be achieved without such a meeting.
Q: The Syrians say there will be no such meeting.
A: Look, it was Syria that urged us to announce the talks between us – not us. They have never done this before. It is positive and important.
Q: At what stage are the talks? Is there agreement about withdrawal? What happens after peace? A break in [Syrian[ ties with Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas?
A: Each side knows what the other side wants and we shall say nothing different today. About those ties with Iran, let us be very clear: is it conceivable that we should sign a peace treaty with Syria, opening our embassy in Damascus and theirs in Tel Aviv, with trade, economic, aviation and tourism arrangements, and at the same time Syria would continue to maintain its ties with Teheran?
Q: How can you dictate to Syria what relationships it will have? It is a sovereign state.
A: We do not harm Syrian sovereignty by saying that we expect Syria to stop its support of terrorism. How can we accept a continued [Syrian] alliance with an Iran that supports terrorism?
Q: The French president has offered also to mediate between Israel and Syria. Are there any other mediators?
A: President Kennedy used to say: "Success has many fathers, but failure has only one." As long as things are progressing there are many who will take credit.
Q: Is President Sarkozy still trying to get you and President Assad together?
A: I have been asked: “Why not invite Assad to visit Israel? What do you think? Could there be anything nicer? Do you know how important that could be?” But I have not invited him. Why? I am realistic; the conditions are not yet ripe. I do not want to embarrass him.
Q: How do you face those in Israel and the US who say Assad is not really interested in peace with Israel but only wants to break the Western boycott and improve his own ties with Washington?
A: You are making assumptions. But when asked such questions I say: What is the matter? Let peace develop with Israel, let the boycott end, and [Syrian] relations can develop with the West. Does this bother me? I want peace.
Q: It is no secret that Israel put on a show of strength to impress Iran. Former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, when asked if the IDF was planning to hit Iran, took off his glasses and said, "We can get anywhere."
A: I don’t have such glasses. Look, we cannot stand with our hands tied when faced with nuclear armaments held by someone who calls daily for our destruction. I tell you clearly – Iran is not just an Israeli question but one that concerns the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Arabs too. All must work to stop Iran from getting nuclear arms. Israel is not in the vanguard to face Iran but a participant like the others. We are trying to convince the West to use all manner of force to persuade Iran to drop the nuclear program.