Ehud Olmert is a survivor. His political career – stints as a cabinet member and mayor of Jerusalem, followed by a short but eventful premiership from 2006 to 2009 in which he oversaw military campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah, made progress negotiating with the Palestinian Authority, and stood down facing corruption allegations which eventually landed him in jail (but he denied) - would have worn out many people. His energy appears undimmed as he spoke to TRT World on the sidelines of this year’s Rhodes Forum.
Lean, fit, and showing none of his 74 years, Olmert gave his views on the current political deadlock gripping his home country, which has held two inconclusive elections so far this year.
The stakes are high: prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who succeeded Olmert in 2009, may soon face corruption charges of his own but could avoid prison if he remains in office. For Olmert, his successor’s fate is sealed.
“He will be indicted, and Netanyahu is finished. His service as prime minister has come to an end.”
Since the second election, Netanyahu has been trying to form a government, thus far without success. Olmert expects Israel’s president to ask Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s opponent, to form a coalition. But this will likely be impossible, making a third election all but inevitable.
“This is not something that is desired, but under the circumstances, it looks like the only option,” Olmert says. He thinks that a third-round may produce “somewhat different results” possibly allowing Gantz to form a new government.
This could have positive implications for the Palestinian conflict. A Gantz-led administration would, “certainly be better for the peace process than the government of Netanyahu,” Olmert said.
“The policy of Israel will not be provocative,” and there will perhaps be “more meaningful contacts” with the Palestinians than was the case under Netanyahu.
However, while Gantz may be an improvement on the past, Olmert doubts that there would be significant progress.
“The general mood is going to be better. Whether it will be better to the point that the leadership from both sides will have the power, the determination, the courage to go all the way, that remains to be seen.”
Gantz would be taking office at a time when the US government has turned up the heat on the Palestinians, cutting aid and ending funding for a UN refugee agency, recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and recognising the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
“The general attitude of the Trump administration towards the Palestinians left a lot to be desired”, Olmert said, failing to create the kind of “openness” required for a meaningful process.
The dud of the century
President Trump has been developing a long-delayed peace plan, details of which were recently revealed by his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The first phase of the proposal involves a large surge of investment in the West Bank and Gaza, which will supposedly incentivise the Palestinians to negotiate.
However, the plan – unveiled at a conference in Bahrain last summer – has been rejected by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), and has been widely criticised and mocked by experts and policymakers.
Olmert is likewise unimpressed. Economic incentives are “irrelevant” to the peace process, he believes. “The political dimension is independent. It does not depend on any economic improvement.”
He says offering Palestinians economic benefits will not get them to accept Netanyahu’s settlement policies or agree to a limited area with some degree of control instead of an independent Palestinian state.
“All these dreams that you can buy them with money depend entirely on a lack of understanding of the basic parameters of this conflict.”
During his recent election campaign, Netanyahu sparked controversy when he vowed to annex parts of the West Bank. Olmert dismisses such talk as election rhetoric which would not materialise even if Netanyahu remained in power.
“Israel doesn’t need it. There are alternative solutions which are in line with the basic needs of Israel’s security,” he said, referring to the proposals he had made to the Palestinians during their negotiations in 2007-8, which he now says should be “reimplemented.”
Olmert describes those talks as the “last good attempt” at a political settlement and “a very unique moment in the history of the conflict. We were very close to concluding a deal.”
Regarding Hamas, which controls Gaza, Israel should “fight them,” Olmert said because they are “terrorists” who do not represent the Palestinian Authority.
“I never said I would compromise with terrorists,” he said. “I always fought them, and I fought them better than perhaps anyone before or after me. But Abu Mazen is not an enemy; he is a partner.”
The Gulf is peripheral in Israel-Palestine
The success of any such peace plan would require buy-in from Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While those countries do not recognise Israel and have no formal diplomatic ties with the country, reports suggest that relations are improving behind the scenes.
Olmert dismisses such talk.
“We had good relations with those countries in the past. We still have good relations,” he said. Ties with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi “have been talked about more than in the past, but they didn’t change.”
And there will be no official relations with those states “until there is an agreement between us and the Palestinians. The key to reshuffle the entire Middle East is an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians,” he insists.
“We don’t want to be living in one state with a majority of Palestinians. The only way to avoid it is to separate. The only way to separate is to allow the Palestinians to create their own independent state,” more or less within the 1967 borders, Olmert said.
A peace settlement is urgently needed so that Israel can normalise ties with other Muslim countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan.
“Pakistan is a country with great potential,” Olmert said. “We already have some kind of informal contact. We used to have in the past – I can say from a certain degree of knowledge. And I think that we should continue,” he said. “We have no direct history of conflict between us and the Pakistanis, so why shouldn’t we have good relations with them?”
Pakistan does not recognise Israel, and there has only been one public meeting between officials from both countries, when their foreign ministers met in Turkey in 2005, although informal contacts have long been rumoured.
As India’s relations with Israel have warmed in recent years, the current Pakistani government under Imran Khan appears open to improved ties. Controversy erupted last year when a private jet from Tel Aviv landed in Pakistan rumoured to have been carrying Netanyahu on a secret trip.
Outside the Muslim world, Olmert would like to see Israel’s growing ties with India and China expand further. “We have long ago been very open for expanding our relations,” he said. “I hope they will develop much more. But we are on the right track.”
No proof that Iran violated the nuclear deal
Israel’s main adversary in the region is Iran, which has established a long-term presence in neighbouring Syria, where it is closely allied with the regime of Bashar al Assad. Iranian-backed militias have operated near the Golan Heights, and Iran apparently wishes to use Syria as a land-bridge to ferry supplies to Hezbollah.
Olmert sees Tehran’s activities in Syria as “a problem, but it is a problem that can be dealt with.”
The strikes Israel has been launching against pro-Iranian forces there are “inevitable,” he told TRT World.
But Israel is partly to blame for Iran’s expansion on its doorstep, Olmert said because it took its eye off the ball trying to rally international support for a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, allowing Tehran to move into Syria behind its back.
Olmert believes that President Trump was wrong to withdraw from the nuclear deal concluded in 2015. He doesn’t know of “one Israeli expert that has been involved in the Iran nuclear issue over the last 15 years” who thinks that the deal was bad and that the US should withdraw from it.
Netanyahu has claimed that Iran violated the deal, but Olmert sees no evidence. “We didn’t have any, any proof that Iran violated this agreement, so why did they have to cancel and withdraw from the agreement? I think it was a mistake.”
The deal, while not ideal, was an “improvement” on the previous state of affairs, he insisted, and it was signed with Israel’s allies in Europe. Withdrawing from the agreement has so far not led to any improvement. Trump wants a better deal, but Iran has ruled out further negotiations.
Turkey and northern Syria
Olmert said that Turkey’s military operation against the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK terrorist organisation in northern Syria “does not affect Israel at this point in time.”
However, he is concerned that the withdrawal of American forces might send a signal to other US allies that it is an unreliable partner.
“This is something that we should be aware of,” Olmert said, but Israel is more than capable of defending itself.
“Whether America is in the north of Syria or not does not make a dramatic difference to the security of the state of Israel.”