"There is one issue that certainly disturbs us very much and that is the Iranian issue."

(Communicated by the Prime Minister’s Media Adviser)

Following are excerpts from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s answers to questions at the annual editors’ committee meeting, which took place this year on Thursday, 7 December 2006.

Prime Minister Olmert: "We have been fighting terrorism for decades and the terrorism that we are currently fighting is not a new phenomenon. Neither is it less or more threatening. I can say one thing with certainty – we are fighting it with greater success than in the past.  (…).

In any case, there is one issue that certainly disturbs us very much and that is the Iranian issue. It wasn’t born in recent months but has been on the international agenda for a not inconsiderable period.It is not an Israeli issue. Its links and threats do not pertain to Israel only. It is definitely an issue that weighs heavily on us too and we are working in various ways to deal with it but it is – first and foremost – an international issue. The international community also believes that it must deal with this issue. 

The way to deal with it, first and foremost, is to see to it that Iran will not have the ability to develop nuclear weapons. This is the goal. The ways are various and manifold. I hope that it will be possible to achieve this via negotiations, as I have said more than once, including through compromise. Any compromise that leads to Iran not crossing the technological threshold and not having the ability to produce non-conventional weapons seems to me a compromise in the right direction. 

The international community is making a major effort to reach such an arrangement. It is clear that Israel cannot countenance the idea that Iran will be nuclear capable and I am pleased that we think like other countries in the world, first and foremost the USA.  I was recently in the USA and met with US President George Bush – he said as much and so did I. I can say, based on what I heard from him, that he led me to feel less concerned than I had been on this issue. 

If I look at the overall picture – our economic situation is better than ever in our history. The dangers that we face, except for the Iranian issue that I have just mentioned, are dangers that we now know how to deal with more efficiently than in our history. We have difficulties. We have distress. But we have major achievements and I think that we have very many reasons to be proud of our country and optimistic for the future.

On the Syrian issue, regarding the American opinion, yesterday, the President received a report on an issue that is the subject of great controversy within the USA…The question is, first and foremost, an internal American issue. I can say that regarding attempts to create linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Middle East issue, we have a different view.  According to my best understanding, President Bush has had, over recent years, a different view on this matter.  (…)."

Question: "I would like to sharpen the question on the Syrian issue. Is the Baker-Hamilton commission’s formulation acceptable to you, that in exchange for peace with Syria, Israel needs to evacuate the entire Golan Heights? And do you feel uncomfortable or even angry with the conclusion in the report that all of America’s troubles in the Middle East originate in the fact that the Israeli-Arab conflict has yet to be resolved?

Prime Minister Olmert: "I don’t want to discuss this or that comment in a report that I haven’t read and with which I am not familiar.  Regarding the Syrian issue, to the best of my knowledge, two Prime Ministers supported a broad withdrawal, perhaps complete, from the Golan Heights. Ehud Barak and the late Yitzhak Rabin spoke about this. It seems to me that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights so that the question of what Israel is prepared to offer Syria is one that our leaders have already raised more than once.  The question that interests me is what we can expect to receive from Syria when and if we enter into negotiations with it.

I think that it would be incorrect for me to present a position now when there are no negotiations. The very enunciation of this or that view is likely to be seen as a part of negotiations that don’t exist and, in my opinion, Syria’s recent conduct – especially its efforts to undermine the stability of the regime in Lebanon, its continued support for the extremist Hamas, which is perhaps preventing the start of practical negotiations between us and the Palestinians – is not creating a picture in which there is much of a chance for negotiations with the Syrians in the near future.

Regarding the issue that has been seemingly cited, because I really can’t say that this citation from the report is accurate, I am not convinced that the report blames Israel for the USA’s plight. But as I’ve already said, I see things differently.  Many in the USA see things differently. It seems to me that the current administration sees things differently. One very important thing must be said: Nobody wants to have negotiations more than us. I don’t think that even Jim Baker can compete with me vis-a-vis the efforts that I am making in order to facilitate the beginning of negotiations between us and the Palestinians in order to resolve the problems in this part of the Middle East. There are very many problems in the Middle East that are not connected with us. I very much hope that the Palestinians will be capable of responding to us in a way that enables us to begin talks between us and them."

Question: "This week…you spoke against the policy of your predecessor on the Lebanese issue for ignoring the build-up of strength by Hizbullah for years and, in effect, allowing Hizbullah to establish the military force that it struck us with this past summer. Aren’t you currently repeating the same mistake in the Gaza Strip when, under the cover of the calm and the ceasefire, the terrorist organizations there are building up a complex military strength that is liable to be directed against us in the future? The State of Israel is currently not taking any steps against this build-up of military force. What steps do you intend to take in order to prevent those terrorist organizations from recycling the Hizbullah story from Lebanon and in order to prevent them from building up their military strength?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "I do not recall that I spoke against the policy of previous governments. I assume that I noted the fact that in practice an area was established in southern Lebanon in recent years from which northern Israel was tangibly threatened, as we have understood as a result of the fighting in the north this past summer. I am very pleased that this reality in the north has been fundamentally changed. We will not allow this or any similar reality to develop in the south and we are active in this regard. In recent months, we took unprecedented action…Since June over 400 members of terrorist organizations have been killed in the Gaza Strip…If we reach the conclusion that we must act in the future in order to prevent such a reality as you are warning of, we will find the ways to act.  I am very pleased by the ceasefire. I think that the fact that all of the Palestinian organizations decided – as the Palestinian Prime Minister informed me – to cease firing, smuggling weapons, tunneling and other violent activity, is something that we need to respond to. However, as I said, we will neither countenance, nor agree to, nor accept a situation in which a force is constructed that could threaten part of the State of Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Question: "Last week at Sde Boker, you apparently breathed new life into the diplomatic process in the Middle East. Yesterday, we heard from the Baker commission that seeks direct American involvement in the Middle East negotiations with the Palestinians.  Do you support such involvement by the American administration in the dialogue with the Palestinians and others?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "It is correct that my speech at last week’s annual memorial ceremony for David and Paula Ben-Gurion touched on our strong aspiration to have an active and continuing diplomatic process with the Palestinians in order to reach a settlement based on the principles enunciated by the international community – those of the Quartet and in the Roadmap…

The Americans have always been involved in the processes here. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was here last week and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will certainly meet with her over the weekend. Our new Ambassador to the US, Sallai Meridor, has been in continuous contact with the administration. The Americans are very involved and this is good. We respect their involvement and we are in continuous contact with them. We want to advance any chance to create a dynamic that will lead to negotiations and we will do much in order to enable these negotiations to be held.  I very much appreciate US President Bush’s personal contribution, as well as that of US Secy. of State Dr. Rice, in advancing these chances.

As you know, there are difficulties, mainly on the Palestinian track.  They have major problems that they must deal with.  Regarding us, we will not miss any opportunity to create an atmosphere that will make it possible to advance the chances of negotiations and we are prepared to deal with any related difficulties."

Question: "What is your reaction to US Defense Secretary’s remarks on the Iranian nuclear issue?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "First of all, I do not think that anybody in the USA believes that the development of an Iranian nuclear capability is justified. I am very familiar with the position of the American administration, including the positions of the President, the Vice-President, the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser. I have yet to speak with the new Secretary of Defense. His appointment was announced the day I arrived in the US and, naturally, we did not have time to speak. But I have no doubt that nobody in the USA, in any position of responsibility, supports, justifies or is prepared to countenance a nuclear-capable Iran. 

I don’t know what statement you’re basing your question on. It is very likely that the Defense Secretary was discussing the reasons the Iranians give – why they seemingly need such a capability even though it sounds a little strange to me since I recall that the Iranians have long claimed that they have no intention of producing either a bomb or a nuclear capability with military uses but want to develop this capability for peaceful and civilian purposes only.  In any case, the Iranians’ pretexts will be what they are. We cannot remain indifferent to attempts which appear to us to be serious attempts to develop a capability with which they will be able to advance toward the production of a non-conventional bomb. We will work with our friends, first and foremost with the USA, in order to prevent this.

Question: "You commented positively on the Saudi initiative on your latest speech. Since coming into office, have you had any direct contact with any Saudi VIPs?  Whether you have or not, do you intend to accelerate this track? (…)."

Prime Minister Olmert: "During the fighting in the North this past summer, it was possible to be deeply impressed by the unusual position taken by several Arab and Islamic countries: The Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. For the first time in 60 years of fighting between Israel and the Arab countries, there was a situation in which there was combat against a Muslim population and Arab Islamic countries expressed sharp reservations over the conduct of the Arab Islamic side and, in effect, identified with the response taken by the State of Israel. I thought that this was very impressive and not coincidental. There is no doubt that it is important and I thought appreciation and esteem for this must be expressed in my remarks and I have said so several times.

In the same context, I also referred to that what has been termed the Saudi peace initiative and the later Arab League Beirut 2002 peace initiative; I won’t go into the differences between the various texts. They contained interesting innovations that must not be ignored. While they also contained things that we cannot accept, they do contain impressive things that I referred to in my speech. By the way, not only in this speech but during other opportunities and, of course, in the future if it will be possible, I would be very happy to be in contact with representatives of these countries in order to strengthen the positions of Arab Muslim moderates who think that the conflict with the State of Israel must be settled peacefully and not through violence.  (…)."

Question: "Seeing that you are responsible for the Israeli security services, do you know where Gilad Shalit is being held, what his condition is and how the negotiations on a deal for his release are going?  We heard from President Mubarak this morning that there has been very great progress.  Regarding the abductees in Lebanon, are negotiations being held and do you think that you crossed red lines when you let be understood details regarding the situation of the abductees in Lebanon?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "First of all, I have been preoccupied with this issue since 25 June 2006 and then since 12 July, every day and frequently at night. I understand the families’ constant distress, anxiety, frustration and pain. We are making very great efforts on these issues. No day goes by without reports from various sources. One day the leader of a certain country is quoted.  The next day there are contacts between a family and someone masquerading as a representative of one of the organizations. 

These issues come up every day and those who decide the thickness and size of the headlines are usually those who publish them. If we respond, sometimes there is anger why we are responding. If we do not respond, sometimes there is commentary that is liable to be damaging to the desire not to respond to a certain report. 

What I referred to this week was what I knew or didn’t know and whether on 12 August 2006, I should have decided to continue fighting. I said that I did not know then if it was possible to free the abductees and I didn’t know what their situation was and I had to consider the question of whether or not to continue the fighting, balancing everything that this entailed against everything that this lack of knowledge entailed. I said as much to the families before the ceasefire was decided on and therefore, they knew these things from me. I understand the families’ distress and emotional storm but this is a situation that must be treated with maximum restraint and therefore, I am trying to do everything possible and say very little on this issue, even regarding your question."

Question: "Abu Mazen hasn’t succeeded in forming a national unity government.  How long will you continue to relate to him as a separate entity? (…)."

Prime Minister Olmert: "Abu Mazen was elected in direct elections in 2005 to the Chairmanship of the Palestinian Authority. I recall that he received over 60% of the votes. There were also elections to the legislative council, which unfortunately was won by Hamas. The head of Hamas is presently the Prime Minister. For this reason, the State of Israel and the entire world does not recognize the government nor does it cooperate with it. If the Palestinian government will accept the principles of the Quartet and the Roadmap I will cooperate with it even if it includes Hamas members.  This has been our stance from the outset."

Question: "You said that a meeting with Abu Mazen is close at hand, where are things standing? Will it take place only after Gilad Shalit’s release?  It appears that our relations with Egypt are very good – Omar Suleiman comes here often and you have discussions with President Mubarak. How do things stand with Hashemite Kingdom and is there a possibility of a release of Jordanian prisoners in light of the rising demand among the Jordanian public?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "I hope that the meeting with Abu Mazen will occur soon.  In my view, conditions do not exist for a meeting.  Regarding relations with Egypt, they are good. There is close contact with President Mubarak as well as with those whom he appoints to deal with the sensitive issues on the agenda between us and them. Relations with the Jordanian Kingdom are excellent. There is constant contact, everyday, and I am very satisfied with this cooperation."

Question: "You spoke of the possibility of negotiations with Syria.  But there are also voices from IDF Intelligence Corps, and other intelligence sources, which talk about the possibility of deterioration to another war already this summer on the northern front both with Lebanon and Syria. Do you share the assessment that this possibility exists? Also, since the war, it would seem that the IDF is going through an internal command crisis apparent in the war investigations and how they are being handled. Do you think that IDF Chief-of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz is the man who can rehabilitate the IDF and prepare it for war that may come as soon as this summer?"

Prime Minister Olmert: I support Dan Halutz fully. He and the IDF senior command together with the Defense Minister with present to me the reports, conclusions and recommendations in a very short time frame."

Question: "And the issue of war with Syria?"

Prime Minister Olmert: I did not speak about the chances of negotiations with Syria. I spoke about the possibility and explained my stance on the issue.  I do not thnk that Syria wants a war with us. We, of course, have no desire to fight with them, but that doesn’t mean that the conditions are ripe to allow us to enter into negotiations with them."

Question:  "The day before yesterday, the Israeli Arabs’ Monitoring Committee presented a document, titled: Future Vision of Israeli Arabs" – which includes cultural autonomy and veto rights on Government decisions. What is your reaction?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "I have yet to see this document, since its authors have yet to honor me with the possibility. I think that such positions that arise from time to time certainly present the views of individuals in the Israeli public. I am sure that the decisive majority of Israeli Arabs want to be citizens of the State with equal rights just like the rest of the country’s citizens, and not part of some other legal entity. I don’t think that this proposal is very serious, but more than this, I also think that this is an unwise decision. It is unwise advice and I wonder that part of the leadership of the Arab community in Israel would open the door to discussion on changing the status of Israeli Arabs within the state."

Question: "Despite what you heard from President Bush, new winds are blowing in Washington. We have heard this not only from the Baker-Hamilton report, but from the new US Defense Secretary and even from the commander of American forces in Iraq. Everyone is saying that advances in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there are those who are saying more Israeli concessions toward the Palestinians or Syria are needed in order to release pressure in Iraq. Do you agree with this evaluation?"

Prime Minister Olmert: "Iraq is foremost an American issue and I am not willing to remark on a report which I have not yet heard nor studied in depth. America is a democracy. It has an assortment of varying views; there are views in congress which differ from those of the president and there are opinions in the media and American public opinion which reflect different approaches to the Iraqi issue. As an Israeli – and I believe that I express the beliefs of the decisive majority of Israelis – that we always believed that, like other countries in our region, that the ousting Saddam Hussein made a major contribution to the stability of this part of the world.  Image that in addition to what we are forced to deal with today, we would have to deal with the aggression and threats which characterized the regime of Saddam Hussein.

There are varying views regarding the future approach, the future policy if the United States and that will ultimately be determined by the President. I have faith in President Bush, I have faith in his judgment, in his wisdom and in his leadership, and I am convinced that he will arrive to the best conclusion for the United States of America. One thing and I think that it is clear to most Americans and that is that the problems in Iraq, serious as they may be, are not related to the differences between us and the Palestinians.  Either way, no one needs to encourage Israel to advance peace initiatives. I think that the whole world will agree that we are the ones who are initiating advances in what we hope will be a peace process with the Palestinians and we hope that the Palestinians will join us at some stage.

We agreed to reciprocity, in exchange for their agreement to halt the launching of Kassam rockets against us -mthey have yet to stop completely, there is still occasional firing – but we will continue to show restraint because we, without any external encouragement, are interested in altering the atmosphere in the Middle East, and any support in that direction is welcome."