In preparation for his first official visit to Washington, PM Olmert discussed the issues of Iran and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Israel’s newly elected prime minister, Ehud Olmert, makes his first official visit to Washington this week for talks with President Bush and other top U.S. officials. He addresses a joint meeting of the United States Congress on Wednesday. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead the agenda, but Iran’s nuclear program and recent threatening comments from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will certainly come up. I spoke with the prime minister as he prepared for his trip.

BLITZER: Prime Minister Olmert, congratulations. Thanks very much for joining us. Welcome back to "Late Edition." We have lots to discuss. I want to start, though, with the situation involving Iran and its nuclear ambitions. What’s Israel’s estimate? How much longer before Iran has a nuclear bomb?

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: First of all, thank you very much, Wolf, for inviting me to this program, which I was very proud to take part in many times in the past in different capacities.

The issue of Iran is a very serious one. And the question is not when, technically, they will be in possession of nuclear bomb. The question is when will they cross the technological line that will allow them at any given time, within six or eight months, to have nuclear bomb? And this technological threshold is nearer than we anticipated before. This is because they are already engaged very seriously in enrichment. So in other words, we are close enough to the possible possession of a nuclear weapon by the most extreme fundamentalist government, which talks openly and publicly about the wiping out of the State of Israel. That’s where we are.

BLITZER: Well, what does that mean in terms of the time line? Do you believe it’s months away, years away from crossing that technological threshold, as you say?

OLMERT: The technological threshold is very close. It can be measured by months rather than years.

BLITZER: So what does that mean from Israel’s perspective? A lot of us remember the Israeli action in 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the facility at Osirak. You remember that Israeli strike. Is Israel planning a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities?

OLMERT: At that time, you’ll remember that most of the international community, including your country, were entirely unaware of the danger of Iraq and of the possible nuclear weapons possessed by Iraq. And therefore, at that time, when we sensed that the international community is not aware, we were left with no other option but to attack Iraq ourselves.

Now there is an entirely different situation. America and Europe are leading this international effort. It is now on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, and many countries are involved in trying to stop this, and I hope that they will succeed. We will certainly try to convince other countries how urgent it is and why it is so important that, at this time before they cross the technological threshold, that the measures will be taken to stop them. But thank God now it’s widely recognized by the international community, and therefore, Israel doesn’t have to act on its own.

BLITZER: Do you really believe that the president of Iran would stop its nuclear enrichment program under these political pressures from the U.S., the U.N., the Europeans?

OLMERT: I prefer to take the necessary measures to stop it, rather than to find out later that my indifference was so dangerous. We have to remember what happened when the world did not listen to dictators threatening other nations of annihilation. We had one experience in history of the Jewish people that we definitely don’t want to be repeated.

When I hear a president of a nation openly and officially declaring on every possible network in the world that he intends to wipe out another nation, my nation, and at the same time, he’s working so hard to possess nuclear weapons, I have all the legitimacy to be concerned and to motivate other nations to take the necessary measures to stop him.

BLITZER: Here’s what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, said last October. He said, "Israel must be wiped off the map of the world. And, God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionists." And this is what he said only on April 14th, last month. He said, "I would like to say that, whether you like it or not, the Zionist regime is approaching its end. The Zionist regime is a dying tree, that soon its branches will be broken down."

Is this, from your perspective, simply rhetoric on his part, or do you think he really means it?

OLMERT: I certainly think that this is a lot more than just rhetoric. As I said before, when such words are spelled out with such clarity by a leader of a nation, it can’t be left unanswered. It is totally inconceivable that, having the experience that the Western civilization has with such leaders, that we will hear these words and we will not respond. It has to be answered.

When such a leader is trying to build up nuclear weapons that can destroy major parts of the entire civilization of ours, then we have to act. And is incumbent upon the responsible forces in the Western world to take the necessary measures.

As I said before, no one can say that he is not aware of what he says and what he claims. And therefore, I trust that the necessary measures will, indeed, be taken.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying, Mr. Prime Minister, is that if diplomacy fails, Israel might, in the end, have to take unilateral military action.

OLMERT: I think you hear too much on this particular one. What you can say is that I hope diplomacy will not fail, and I hope that the responsible forces will take the necessary measures. And knowing President Bush, the depth of his commitment and the extent of his understanding of world affairs and of the need to fight extremists and terrorists, I am confident that he will lead other nations in taking the necessary measures to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

BLITZER: I just want to press you on this point. You’re not ruling out an Israeli preemptive strike, when all is said and done?

OLMERT: I don’t think that we have come close to even considering it.

BLITZER: That sounds like a pretty hard and fast statement, but I suspect there are planning operations in the Israeli military, as there are at the Pentagon, just in case.

OLMERT: Again, I understand your need of coming out with a big statement out of this program, and I’d love to give you one. But it will not be on this issue.

There is a Western world. There is America. There is Great Britain and Germany and France and Russia and China and other nations. I doubt that there is one country amongst those I mentioned which has a desire to see Iran, with its fundamentalist, Islamic, extremist government, possessing nuclear weapons. So I trust that they will take the necessary measures. I think it would be inappropriate and out of place for me to make any further statements about the other options.

BLITZER: Let’s talk about the Israeli-Palestinian issues on the agenda right now. That will be a big chunk of your conversations here in Washington. Do you believe that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority will accept Israel’s right to exist, accept the Oslo agreements, renounce terrorism? Is that at all possible, from based on what you know?

OLMERT: I certainly hope that they will, but if you ask me what chance do I give to it, very low. After the last suicidal attack in Tel Aviv, when 11 people were assassinated – among them a young American boy, Daniel Wultz, from Florida, 16 years old, who was brutally killed, and died just a few days ago – the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, of the Palestinian government, and the minister of foreign affairs both said that they can’t denounce this killing because this is, indeed, the realization of the ultimate dream of the Palestinians. And to hear the leader of Hamas talks about the dream of killing innocent children in the streets of a city is very disturbing. This is not a signal for moderation. This is a warning for further killing and terrorism.

BLITZER: They applauded that action. They supported it. But it was an action undertaken by Islamic Jihad, not by Hamas. What, if anything, do you make of the fact that Hamas itself has abided by avoiding terror attacks for the last year or so? It hasn’t undertaken any suicide bombings or attacks directly.

OLMERT: What difference does it make? When the head of Hamas openly and publicly declares that he embraces the suicidal attackers, that he supports them, that he been able to, he wouldn’t have stopped them from doing what they do because they are fulfilling the dream of the Palestinians, its practically like taking part in the act itself. Because this is the most important inspiration for these suicidal attackers to carry on, and many more from them.

So I don’t see any difference between the Hamas, which motivates and inspires the suicidal attackers, and the Islamic Jihad, which actually takes part in these actions. Both share the same values. Both share the same policy. Both share the same kind of responsibility.

BLITZER: The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said this earlier in the week, "I reiterate that, based on the constitutional power granted to me by our basic law, which entrusts negotiation responsibility in the hands of the PLO executive committee, its chairman and its negotiation affairs department, we remain fully committed to return immediately to the negotiating table to reach an agreement that ends this long conflict."

You’ve negotiated with President Abbas in the past. Is it possible to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority president, as opposed to the prime minister and the Hamas-led government?

OLMERT: I’d certainly love to think that Mahmoud Abbas is capable of handling negotiations for the Palestinian people. In fact, I respect Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He’s a genuine person, and I know that he’s opposed to terror and, had it depended on him, he would have accepted all the basic principles that are the guidelines for future negotiations between us and the Palestinians.

But as it turns out, I’m afraid that President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t have even the power to take charge of his own government. So how can he represent that government in the most crucial, complex and sensitive negotiations, about which there are so many divisions within the Palestinian community? This is not a personal issue.

Of course, Mahmoud Abbas himself is a very decent human being, unlike his predecessor. So we don’t take anything for granted. Yasser Arafat was a murderer. And Mahmoud Abbas is a decent representative of the Palestinian community which elected him chairman a few years ago. But since he was elected, there was a new government elected. And this government is a terrorist government. And Mahmoud Abbas was deprived of all his powers. He is powerless. He is helpless. He is unable to even stop the minimal terror activities amongst the Palestinians, so how can he seriously negotiate with Israel and assume responsibility for the most major, fundamental issues that are in controversy between us and them?

BLITZER: You and your coalition government have supported a plan over the next several years to begin a unilateral disengagement or withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, just as Israel withdrew from Gaza, as you know. Many, including President Abbas, many in Europe, even here in the United States, are condemning this. The French foreign minister said on Wednesday, "It’s unacceptable that a border declared unilaterally would be accepted by the world." How committed are you to this unilateral disengagement from the West Bank, sort of along the lines of the wall that Israel has been and is constructing?

OLMERT: I met yesterday afternoon with the French foreign minister. He’s a very pleasant gentleman, and I don’t remember him saying the same things about these ideas that you just now quoted. But I understand, and this is very natural, that there are many who prefer negotiations.

I’ll share with you my desire. I also prefer negotiations. There is nothing that I’d love to do more than negotiate with Palestinians. This is my desire. This is my dream. This is my mission.

I was elected prime minister of Israel on that sole agenda, that I’m prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians in order to advance further agreements that will lead Israel into a new phase of understanding with the Palestinians, that I will help Israel ultimately have borders that we don’t have for so many years, and I will separate us from the Palestinians so that we will live our lives and they will live their lives alongside the state of Israel in their own independent state.

There is nothing that I want more. There is nothing that I will devote my time and energies more than to try and establish the basis for negotiations between us and the Palestinians.

What we said, which was taken and blown out of any proportion, is that if, unfortunately, Palestinians would not mature to the point where they can negotiate with us, largely because their government is a terrorist government and they are unwilling and unable to accept the basic, fundamental principles that were set by the Quartet, by the U.S. president, by the Europeans, and therefore, we may not be able to conduct negotiations, then the question will be, what are we going to do? Wait until the Palestinians will change? How long? One year, two years, three years, five years, 10 years? And in the meantime, what? More terror, more innocent people killed, more victims, more blood, more suffering, more pain?

Or shall we try to do something, certainly not unilaterally, but through negotiations with our friends, with the most important powers of the world, with the U.S. president, with the Europeans, with Egypt, with Jordan? And we’ll try to establish a basis upon which an understanding of our future borders can be reached. And that’s what I will be trying to do.

BLITZER: The former president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, wrote an article in the newspaper USA Today on Tuesday in which he said this. He said, "It is inconceivable that any Palestinian Arab leader or any objective member of the international community could accept this illegal action as a permanent solution to the continuing altercation in the Middle East. This confiscation of land is to be carried out without resorting to peace talks with the Palestinians and in direct contravention of the road map for peace, which President Bush helped to initiate and has strongly supported." Jimmy Carter strongly condemning any unilateral Israeli drawing of lines on the West Bank.

OLMERT: I have enormous respect for President Carter, who come to visit me every now and then. When he’s in Israel, I think some of his statements are different than the ones that he writes when he’s far away. But I think that the basic point is this: Shall we negotiate with a terrorist government? I don’t know that there is one serious American representative that will advise Israel to sit with a terrorist government and negotiate with them.

I’m proud of your president, President George W. Bush, who has the courage and the determination to lead the world into the fight against terrorists across the world. I share with him entirely this position. And I’m not certain that I share the position, the implicit position, of President Carter that we should negotiate with a terrorist government.

BLITZER: Can you work out with President Bush and with others a way to avoid, clearly, negotiating – you don’t want to negotiate with the Palestinian government – but at the same time allow the Palestinians themselves to receive international assistance for humanitarian purposes? Because the plight of the Palestinians now in the West Bank, in Gaza, clearly is growing worse.

OLMERT: This is a much simpler issue. We don’t have to wait until I meet with President Bush to say that we don’t need the advice of any and we don’t need the encouragement of anyone to want to help the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people. At the present time, by the way, we don’t know that there are any humanitarian problems. None at all. For the time being, the only problem is that some members of the government administration, who are known to get salaries from the government for not being involved in terror, did not receive their salaries. All the other needs are met. And here I declare on behalf of the Israeli government that we will buy them all the medical equipment and all the drugs and all the medical supplies needed to all the hospitals in Gaza to make sure that there will be no shortage at all.

So in this area, there is a complete responsibility out of goodwill by Israel and by others. We will pay for it. We will not pay them. We will buy the drugs. We’ll buy the equipment. We’ll buy all the needs, and we will provide it to them directly. Because we certainly care for the humanitarian needs. And this is obvious. But that doesn’t mean that we have to pay salaries for terrorists who are now employed by a terrorist government only in order to strengthen this government. This is not a humanitarian need.

BLITZER: We’re out of time, but I want to ask one final question, Mr. Prime Minister, on your predecessor, Ariel Sharon. What’s the latest information on his condition?

OLMERT: Every morning when we wake up, we pray that we will hear that Ariel Sharon has waken up, opened his eyes, and he’s back into full consciousness. And I still pray with all of the Israelis that it will happen very soon.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, we’ll see you in Washington. Have a safe journey. Thanks very much for joining us on "Late Edition."

OLMERT: Thank you.