Ehud Olmert: 'I can't afford to make mistakes'

Ehud Olmert comes to Britain tomorrow on a visit overshadowed by Mahmoud Abbas's call for a Palestinian referendum on a two-state solution. But Donald Macintyre finds Israel's new Prime Minister in defiant mood
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The Independent Online

Mr Olmert's aide, Asaf Shariv, had interrupted the interview in the Prime Minister's Jerusalem office to lean over and tell him - in Hebrew - the latest from Ramallah, that Mr Abbas was giving more time to Hamas to agree the document and avert a referendum. "I just heard now that Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] postponed the ultimatum for another three days," Mr Olmert obligingly translated.

By an even more striking quirk of timing, Mr Olmert had just been talking at length of why he regarded the referendum as "meaningless" and so distrusted the document it revolved around, and why he is only prepared to contemplate substantive negotiations with Mr Abbas if the tough preconditions imposed on him and Hamas are fulfilled in their totality.

The postponement, he swiftly maintained, "corroborates my argument ... I'm ready to sit down with Abu Mazen and tell him: hey, my neighbour, what do you need so that I can assist you to establish your authority for which you want to speak? And if he doesn't possess this authority ... Look, it's not a minor issue. You make negotiations on the most fundamental issues in the history of my nation ... I have to make sure that I am doing the right thing. I can't afford to make any mistake. This guy is actually unable to even exercise his authority. What shall I negotiate with him about? And now this is something that serious political leaders with a certain experience can't ignore, certainly not Tony Blair nor Jacques Chirac. They are very experienced people."

This will be read with interest, and presumably disappointment, in London and Paris. First, while nothing in Palestinian politics is ever quite certain, Mr Abbas has called journalists to Ramallah today for what is widely expected to be an announcement that the referendum will go ahead on 31 July, an initiative that has been quietly, and guardedly, welcomed in Europe and even by the US. Second, the references to Mr Blair and President Chirac are deliberate. For after a weekend overshadowed by the killing of at least seven Palestinian civilians, including three children, on a Gaza beach in an Israeli naval shelling attack, Mr Olmert will hold talks with each man on Monday and Tuesday. Both European leaders are likely to reiterate their belief in negotiations between Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas.

Did he, first, accept Israeli responsibility for the fact that his country's image in Europe had changed markedly, and not for the better, in the generation since 1967 when its populations had seemed overwhelmingly behind Israel during the Six Day War?

"Of course there is a certain responsibility." But the generation that cheered on Israel had "largely disappeared". Instead, a new generation "doesn't remember that Israel was not in the territories altogether, that we never wanted to be in the territories, that we never really wanted to take over and occupy and territory and that it was imposed upon us by the aggression of the Palestinians and the Egyptians and the Syrians."

And they "didn't remember" that the "Palestinians want Israel to return back into boundaries the width of which is 12km, that can be cut into pieces within minutes. And they are also not familiar enough with the historic facts to remember that the Palestinians brought it upon themselves when throughout history they always refused to make peace when peace was possible. I hope that with the apparent desire of Israel to pull out of territories, to separate from the Palestinians and help create a two-state solution, that this attitude will change."

But he had been reported as being very dismissive of Mr Abbas's attempts to advance the Palestinian side towards such a solution through his referendum. "I still am," interrupted Mr Olmert, stressing instead international agreement to both the road map's stipulation that Mr Abbas first has to start using the security apparatus "for the dismantlement of terrorist capabilities" (it also requires Israel to dismantle settlement outposts) and to the Quartet's refusal to talk to Hamas without the latter agreeing to recognise Israel, renounce violence, and honour previous agreements with Israel.

"Look, do you want to change the basic principles that were outlined by the Quartet [The US, the EU, the UN and Russia] in the road map, you want to change the road map? I think that if you start to walk on this road you soon enough will find yourself in deep danger. If you don't want to change it, then look at the letter of the prisoners. In there, they don't even mention the state of Israel, they don't even refer to the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

"They insist on the right of return which is the almost automatic, outright destruction of the state of Israel. So why should I accept something that challenges the very fundamental principles of Israel's existence to become a basis for some improvement? Why should I accept this?" But on the right of return, the document is studiedly vague, saying nothing about refugees returning to their old pre-1948 homes in Israel? "Why do they have to be more explicit than just say: right of return?" Mr Olmert returns to the Quartet's position. "I am ready to abide by these principles. Stop and disarm the terrorist organisations. Do they talk about it in the letter of the prisoners? Not in the remotest. So, what am I going to be: recklessly irresponsible for the future of my country and accept negotiations where every day there can be a bus exploding in the middle of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. So, what will I say then to the public opinion? 'I am negotiating with Abu Mazen and it's not Abu Mazen who is exploding the buses, it's someone else among the Palestinians?'" So is he really saying that Mr Abbas has to disarm Hamas when it was elected to government last January and when its paramilitaries have been confronting Fatah forces on the streets of Gaza?

"Of course. This is the principle. This has been defined by your governments and I am absolutely ready to subscribe to it. It's the ultimate responsibility of the Palestinians on what their priorities are. You want me to put on the line the life of this country in front of people that are killing each other and that openly and explicitly want to wipe Israel off the map?"

So it doesn't sound as if Mr Olmert will be having many meetings after the one which he says will probably take place "towards the end of this month"?

"I want to research with him and to discuss with him what needs to be done to help him possess the powers needed to cope with the challenge of Hamas and the challenge of terrorists within the Palestinian community. I want to help him. I want to take all the necessary measures that can assist him in this direction."

Wouldn't a referendum win strengthen Mr Abbas? "Look, everything that can strengthen Abu Mazen is favourable. However, at the end of the day he will have to make these basic principles that were outlined. So he will not be able to get away with saying I forced a referendum that accepted a programme which is far behind the basic principles." He had originally talked of his unilateral "realignment plan" - rejected by every Palestinian - as fixing "permanent" borders. "I want to separate from the Palestinians. I want them to have their independent, separate state on a contiguous territory and I want Israel to exist of course as a Jewish state in its own territory, as an independent state in its own territory. The Palestinian state, the Israeli state, separate. This is my dream. I prefer an agreement and negotiations. If, as appears at this time, there won't be negotiations because the Palestinian are not ready, because they are not prepared to assume responsibility, because the extremist fundamentalist, religious radical government of Hamas is not prepared and Abu Mazen is too weak, then I'll try and discuss this issue with the international community. I don't have in mind a specific border. I'm not going to come to Tony Blair or to Jacques Chirac or to Angela Merkel or to anyone - I didn't come to Bush - and say to them 'this is the line, take it or leave it, I'm not going to negotiate it.' If all of us agree that they are not ready, what are we going to do? Wait forever? It's playing into the hands of the extremists that don't want any development and that are ready to sacrifice it with blood and terror. If you will not allow the more moderate Palestinians to take over and assume responsibility, then I move forward. But I move forward after talking to Tony Blair and to Jacques Chirac and to George W Bush and to others and trying to prepare a framework that appears to me reasonable to the international community. It does not preclude any future negotiations with Palestinians. But at the same time it's also true that if they will not come and if we will withdraw into certain lines and if we will separate this with a big fence as we intend to do, and that will be the practical border separating us from the Palestinians, it may last for many years. I don't know."

What about specifics? Will the withdrawals, for example, include the hardline settlers in Hebron? "I understand the curiosity which you manifest and I am not certain that I want to satisfy all of your curiosity at this point."

No, he isn't yet saying he is confident of European agreement to his unilateral plan. "I just said I would do everything in my power to convince the Europeans and I want Tony Blair and I want Jacques Chirac and I want Angela Merkel, I want all of the other political leaders in Europe to understand that I care for what they say. I want to listen to them. I will seek their advice. I will seek their opinion. The days that Israel was separated from Europe are gone. There is a new basis for relations that I want to cultivate and to strengthen."

But hadn't he once said, long before becoming Prime Minister, that the advantage of unilateralism was that Israel would be able to keep more territory than through negotiations - and on a separate occasion that it might be 25 years before talks on a final deal followed such a withdrawal?

"Don't fall in love with everything that you may have read and everything that you may have heard from any political leader, including myself. I don't want to argue even whether I said it or not. The point is very simple. The choice that we have, coming very soon, is either to negotiate with someone that doesn't want to negotiate with you or to protect the status quo for an indefinite period of time. I think there is a third option and this option is to move forward, to change the realities, to create a movement that in itself will be a trigger for positive developments. And that's basically what I propose. Now, if I would have withdrawn from 90 per cent or 91 per cent or 88 per cent of the territories, that is something that ought to be left for that stage when it will happen. The fact is that I am ready to pull out from most of the territories. I'm ready to change the demography, the Jewish demography in those territories to allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in contiguous territory. Why wait? Why postpone it forever instead of doing it right now? Why yield to the ultimatum of Hamas rather than face it with vigour and determination and change the realities? And that is what I propose."

I asked about whether a contiguous Palestinian state was really possible as things stood. And whether some Europeans felt what was happening to the west of the barrier [like the consolidation of big settlement blocks jutting into the West Bank and the separation of East Jerusalem from the West Bank] would not offset positive effects of a withdrawal on the other side.

"Listen, I could argue with these Europeans with effective arguments. They say why do we have to waste our energies now? What do you propose? Sit down and do nothing? What do you propose? That I sit with these terrorist killers and negotiate with them against the basic principles that you Europeans have outlined for us? What do you want me to do?"

If the Palestinians were at some time in the future to produce a " partner" acceptable to him, would he offer something close to what Ehud Barak had offered at Camp David in 2000? "I don't think that Barak remembers what he offered. So how do you want me to comment on it? Look, either I don't remember or I don't want to remember. In either case I would come up with the same answer: let's wait for negotiations to eventually take place and when that time will come, I hope the sooner the better. It's too early now to go into those details and I don't want to bind myself to any position."

Had the former head of Mossad Ephraim Halevy not said that sooner or later Israel would have to talk to Hamas? And might not this resonate with a British Government that had talked to Sinn Fein?

"I have to say with the utmost respect to Mr Halevy that this will not have been his first mistake in understanding the dynamics of this situation. But, the difference between Sinn Fein, for instance, and us is that Sinn Fein ultimately wanted to accept a peaceful solution and agreed to the basic, some kind of basic principles that were outlined for such negotiations to take place. You can't count on the other side and say, look, you always have to acquiesce with the more extreme elements because they will prevail. If you accept that they will prevail, you help them prevail. And what I say is that there is a choice given to the Palestinian people. Is it indispensable, is it obvious that they can only choose the more extreme element amongst them or that there can be changes? I don't say that I expect all of the Palestinians to be different from Hamas but why do we have to accept from the beginning that the Palestinians will always be ruled by the more extreme elements such as Hamas instead of by more moderate elements that already compromised?"

One thing Mr Olmert will certainly raise in London is the academic boycott of Israel. "It's the highest degree of hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and maybe even worse. I don't know that they would have done it in another country. The fact that they are doing it against the state of Israel, against us, I think smells of something that I prefer even not to call by its accurate name."

I ask how much influence Mr Olmert's wife, Aliza, famously more of a left-winger than her husband, has had on him? "I know it's not common, but it so happens we have a happy marriage and I very much love my wife." In such circumstances, he says, "there is always a danger that there will be some influence and there has been some influence by her because she has her opinions and I have mine and so that in many different ways I have influenced her also. But you guys don't care for what influences I had on her. You're more interested on the influences that she had on me. So first of all, I admit, she did have a lot of influence on me and it certainly is reflected in some of my present positions and I'm very proud about it."

There is one thing, at any rate, he will enjoy talking about to Mr Blair - a "fantastic guy" whose "only weakness" he says is his support for "the Magpies" - Newcastle United. Where some politicians affect an interest in football, Mr Olmert is a genuine fanatic who follows Manchester United nearly as closely as his beloved Betar Jerusalem. "I think that Tony Blair and myself are certainly wishing for Wayne Rooney to fully recover in order to represent the British national team. I heard Sven Goran Eriksson just say the other day that while everyone is important there is no one like Wayne Rooney and so I hope for England that he will recover fully". More than a little wistfully he added: "I can only say I regret the fact that Israel has not qualified for the finals because that would have changed everything in our lives here."