Ehud Olmert served as the Prime Minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009. He is quite possibly the Israeli leader who came closest to achieving a definitive and lasting peace with the Palestinians. He resigned from office following involvement in a financial scandal, but he remains one of the most listened-to political voices in the country due to his clarity and forward-looking vision.
In the following interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Mr Olmert offers his perspective on the Israel-Hamas war and the future of Gaza.
What really happened on 7 October? Was the ferocious attack by Hamas made possible only by an Israeli military debacle, or was it the result of a more general deficit in political strategy?
From my current position, I cannot know every single detail, but I feel confident in saying that Israel already possessed enough information in the weeks preceding the attack to foresee it. Our intelligence knew the details and the training of the militants in recent weeks. Why then were these pieces of information not taken into account? The answer lies in a mental arrogance that characterizes Israeli politics, and not just recently. It does not concern the military or intelligence but politics. It is the same arrogant presumption that manifested itself on 6 October, 50 years ago at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. This temporal coincidence alone should have raised some fears and suspicions. At the time, we had enough information about the imminent attack from both Egypt and Syria. But, as in 1973, the same arrogance prevailed, stemming from an inconsistent sense of superiority over the Arabs: “Who are the Arabs, after all? Why should we worry about them? We have already defeated them, in ’48 and then in ’67.” This was the prevailing thought on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, leading to an initial defeat that could only be reversed after weeks of bitter losses, costing the lives of over 3,000 Israeli soldiers. The same scenario repeated itself on 7 October: “The Arabs? These Palestinians have no sophisticated weapons, no technology, no planes, no long-range missiles, no tanks, no infantry divisions, nothing; so why should we worry?” This is the real reason why Hamas encountered no actual resistance and could deliver its terror to Israeli villages beyond the border. Nothing more than the result of an attitude of arrogant superiority, of self-sufficiency. But where did this attitude come from? Basically from the government, from this government.
What should have been the Israeli attitude in the face of such an attack?
Look, you know my history. You know about my past dealings with Abu Mazen and how close we were to the definitive “two states for two peoples” solution. Just the other morning, I was contacted by people close to the Palestinian President, asking if I would be willing to meet him again to make a joint statement on how to get out of this crisis. Mahmoud Abbas and I have known each other for many years and have always had intense dialogues, even if our dialogues did not lead to anything concrete and ultimately left me unsatisfied. We had reached an agreement that was the best he could achieve at the time, and no one after him could ever achieve. But he let it slip away. I had proposed the idea of a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders and, based on President Bush’s proposal for a definitive solution, integrated by identifying three demographic areas occupied in 1967 to be annexed to Israel: the areas of Gush Etzion (already inhabited by Jews and then occupied by Jordan in 1948), Maale Ha Adumim (in the suburbs of Jerusalem), and Ariel. All three of these areas represent 4.4 percent of the territory of the West Bank occupied by Israel in ’67. In return, we would have relinquished territories that were already part of Israel before ’67. To my proposal, Abu Mazen said no: “We want exactly and entirely the territories that were occupied in the six-day war.” To which I replied, “Okay, if that’s what you want, you should know that Gaza will remain separate from the West Bank because in ’67 there was no connection between the two areas. On the other hand, we are ready to build a highway connecting Gaza to the rest of the Palestinian State if you accept the exchange.” I also added that East Jerusalem would be recognized as the capital of the new Palestinian state, separating it from Jewish Jerusalem, but that Israel would renounce sovereignty over the Old City and the Temple Mount, if the Palestinians did the same. We proposed the establishment of a trust of five nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and the USA, for the management of the Old City and the Temple Mount, under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, which would guarantee the religious practices of the three religions according to the status quo. Finally, on the issue of refugees, I proposed that it be addressed within the framework of the resolutions adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and reaffirmed at the Riyadh summit in 2007. I also proposed a plan for mutual collaboration on water, energy, the environment, etc.
Why did Abu Mazen refuse then?
Abu Mazen didn’t really refuse. He simply didn’t say yes. We met many times, and he never outright rejected it. He asked to see the maps of the situation I was proposing. I replied, “Abu Mazen, I’ll give you the maps only if you sign them. Because I know you, if I just give them to you, you’ll reappear in five years saying, ‘You’ve already agreed to this, now I want something else!’” Of course, these were the kinds of jokes made to lighten a long and exhausting negotiation.
And how did it end?
It ended with an agreement to have our respective experts study the maps, with a commitment to meet again in a couple of days. But after a couple of days, I received a call from one of his assistants telling me that Abu Mazen had to leave for Jordan. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll wait for you to call me back.” But I was never called back. Probably his good intentions were hindered by others.
And you didn’t face obstacles from your side?
Of course, I did. But I was confident that I could overcome them. But I certainly made several enemies at that time. Otherwise... [he thinks for a moment before continuing, ed.], otherwise, I wouldn’t have ended up involved in the alleged scandal that forced me to resign. Those who seek peace sometimes take more risks than those who want war. But in the end, I fared better than Rabin...
But apart from this personal aspect, what matters is that when Netanyahu came to power, any possibility of dialogue ended. He began to refer to Abu Mazen as an enemy, a Nazi, a supporter of terrorism, driven by messianic Jewish groups. So, he declared that he would not negotiate anything with Abu Mazen, and instead worked to promote, in fact, the role of Hamas against Fatah and the PA [Palestinian Authority, ed.]. In his election campaigns, Netanyahu promised the destruction of Hamas, but once in power, he began to flirt with it. And this is simply because if you don’t want to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, Hamas is the ideal interlocutor. Who would ever sit down with Hamas?
And how did he think he could still solve the Palestinian problem?
He simply didn’t think about it. The solution to the Palestinian problem was never on Netanyahu’s agenda. He thought, as it actually happened, of a periodic reciprocal exchange of artillery that would allow him to say, “I am fighting Hamas.” The truth is that Bibi Netanyahu removed the Palestinian problem. But he miscalculated due to his presumption, and on 7 October, he received an unexpected uppercut. But it hit 1,200 innocent and peaceful Israelis.
And now the situation is much more complicated.
Certainly. Now the Palestinian problem has forcefully returned to the agenda. Now is the time to return to reality and understand that the problem requires a solution. Certainly, I have nothing to object to the fact that Hamas must be immediately prevented from harming any Israeli citizen. Hamas is a terrorist organization, just like isis, like Al Qaeda, and it must be destroyed. But we cannot ignore that there are more than two million Palestinians in Gaza, and even more in the West Bank. In this land, the total number of Palestinians is equal to that of the Jews. It is unrealistic to think — as some imagine — that they can be expelled or even discriminated against in basic civil, political, and social rights.
Is the possibility of integration under a common state institution also unrealistic? After all, some form of integration has occurred in Galilee, in northern Israel.
Certainly. The problems between Jews and Arabs in the north of the country are minor problems, not unlike those experienced by many other countries. And I don’t think many Israeli Arabs would be willing to move elsewhere in the future. However, it must be recognized that the situation of Arabs living in the occupied territories is different, and they deserve different living conditions and rights. In the north, we have a different kind of problem than integration; we have the problem of the constant threat coming from Iran. Hezbollah is the armed arm of Iran, as are Shiite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, as well as Hamas itself, which feeds on Iran’s military support. Iran is extending its sphere of influence throughout the entire Middle East, and this should not concern only us. The accumulation of rockets that Hezbollah has aimed at our northern border is quite large, and these are much more dangerous weapons than those used by Hamas, in terms of power and range.
If you were still the prime minister, how would you have reacted to the 7 October attack? Would you still have unleashed war?
Well, let me say that if I had remained prime minister, we wouldn’t have reached 7 October. There would have been a whole different discussion about relations with the Palestinians. Look, I have no doubt that Hamas’s military organization must be destroyed. But Hamas is not just a terrorist group. It is also an ideology. And ideologies are not destroyed with weapons. But destroying Hamas’s military strength is now imperative.
Even at the cost of 15,000 civilian deaths?
I don’t know if it’s really 15,000, because, as you know, wars are also fought with propaganda. And then I don’t like to discuss numbers because, for me, not 15,000, not 10,000 or 5,000, but just one innocent civilian victim holds me accountable. From whatever side the victim is. Certainly, it is not a fault to be born or live in Gaza. But I can assure you that, as prime minister, I got to know the idf [Israeli Defence Force, ed.], our soldiers, our officers; they never pursued the killing of innocent civilians. A single Palestinian child killed as a result of our soldiers’ actions remains a tragedy for me. Unfortunately, these are things that happen in wars. Not only in Israel. Think of the thousands of innocent victims caused by the Allies in World War ii to liberate Europe from Nazi fascism. It happened with bombings in Germany; it happened in Rome, the Pope’s city in 1943.
But walking around here in Tel Aviv, as in Jerusalem, I constantly hear the word “revenge” spoken on the street. David Grossman says that Israel will emerge from this crisis with an even more widespread extremist, nationalist-religious, intolerant sentiment towards Arabs.
I hope Grossman is wrong. I think, instead, that the high price we paid will make the Israeli people more aware that it is necessary to guarantee a peaceful life and lasting peace, that we cannot live constantly at war. Aware that the Palestinian problem cannot be further removed. I really don’t believe that the Israeli public opinion will come out of this time even more polarized on nationalistic-religious positions. Instead, I see a lot of fatigue, a strong desire to put an end to this tragic story that has been going on for 75 years. We will militarily defeat Hamas, trying to limit damage to civilians as much as possible. But this military commitment does not exhaust our strategy, which is more about laying the foundations for a definitive solution to the conflict.
How much longer will the war last?
It’s still hard to say today. I believe that the more civilian casualties there are, the more pressure from the international community will be felt for a quick conclusion to military operations. So far, we have received support from many Western countries, from Biden, from Sunak, even from Scholz, and from Meloni. We must now show these supporters of ours that we are capable not only of defending ourselves but also of pacifying. I remember that after the war in Lebanon, the issue of forming a multinational interposition force arose. I believe the solution today can be similar: we must convince Biden, nato, Europe to send an international interposition force to Gaza. For a limited period, I would say a year. And in the meantime, establish a new civilian administration in Gaza. And once this is done, seriously resume negotiating the two-state solution. We must build a strategy, which is currently absent, and have a political horizon. If we build this political horizon and declare our commitment to resume negotiations for the two states, our Western partners will be satisfied and will let us complete the military operation to eliminate Hamas from Gaza. Otherwise, we will face strong pressure to withdraw without having completed the operation and without even having brought all the hostages home.
This, however, does not seem to be the orientation of Netanyahu’s government.
I would like to know what it is then. Because, you see, I repeat, the problem of Israel today is to define a strategy, a horizon. One does not wage war without having strategic objectives. We have a duty to think not about the small-scale manoeuvrers of tomorrow, but about the future of our children, our grandchildren. We have a duty to prepare for them a future of peace.
You see, even among those who oppose Netanyahu today, I hear no one talking about “two states.” I see no one envisioning a strategic horizon for the country. When I negotiated for two consecutive years with Abu Mazen, I remember one day I told him, “Mr President, we are not discussing a few square kilometers of land to divide here; we are making history because what you and I define will determine the lives of millions of people. And even more, because you know that the interests of the great world powers are at stake on this small and contested land.”
And there would remain the issue of settlers and settlements.
Look, with the plan we were discussing with Abu Mazen, and the identification of those three areas to annex in exchange for other territories I mentioned earlier, the issue of settlers would be reduced to a little over 100,000 units that would not be complicated to relocate.
But I repeat again: the problem is not technical; it is not a matter of geographical maps but of political horizons, of vision. And this vision can only be a vision of peace.
By Roberto Cetera
from Tel Aviv