TEL AVIV—“I was considering it, but I reached the conclusion that the best time will be the next time." That was what former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert told me a week after Israel's January election when I asked him why—after surveying a political comeback last fall—he decided not to challenge successor Benjamin Netanyahu. "My assessment," he explained, "[was] that the time was not yet ready for a comeback that will make me prime minister. I was not interested in being minister of defense or minister of foreign affairs. And I think it will be easier to run against Bibi next time. Much easier." Olmert has already begun preparing for "the next time," meeting with figures from across the political spectrum (when he opened the door of his Tel Aviv office to greet me, Amir Peretz—the former Labor Party leader and defense minister—popped out).
Events have been kind to Olmert since he left office four years ago under a cloud of scandal. In July, he was cleared of most of the corruption allegations that forced him out. The unprecedented quiet on the Lebanese border has led to positive reappraisals of Olmert's 2006 invasion of Lebanon (seen as a fiasco at the time). And Netanyahu's squabbling with President Obama—and with most of the international community—has put the relative diplomatic calm of Olmert's tenure in a positive light. Whether Olmert could mount a serious threat in the next election to Netanyahu—or to whomever succeeds Netanyahu as head of Likud—is unclear given the meteoric rise of new centrist leader Yair Lapid. But one thing is certain: Olmert will be a major participant in Israel's political discussion over the coming years.
In his hourlong interview with me—conducted for my TNR cover story on the two-state solution—Olmert repeatedly slammed Netanyahu's record, discussed his personal transformation from one of Israel's fiercest hawks to one of its leading doves, offered new details about his ill-fated 2008 negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called President Obama a "friend of Israel" and urged him to stay involved in the peace process, and made the case for why a two-state solution is essential to Israel's survival.
Below is a full transcript of the interview.
We have a lot to speak about. I'm doing a story about the future of the two-state solution, and I'm wondering if you think that there is a future.
There is no other future. There is no other future. I want to draw a distinction between an agreement about it and the implementation of this. Now, I think this is universally accepted, even by those who are supposedly opposed to it, that there is no alternative to a two-state solution—that there can be only one solution, this is two states. By the way, the two-state solution is not a new idea. It's on the basis of the Oslo agreements, and all the other agreements that were signed since then were based on this. The Road Map is based on this. The letter of President Bush to Arik Sharon from the 14th of April 2004 talks about the two-state solution, so the two-state solution is not something that Bibi had to accept as a new idea when he took over in 2009. This was the parameter—the basic parameter—for any further negotiations between us and the Palestinians. Because it's been agreed upon, it's been signed, that there will be two states, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state. Borders were not agreed. The Jerusalem issue was not agreed. All the components were to be negotiated, but within the framework of an idea that was accepted by the two sides.
Now, one of the main arguments which is used by those who oppose it now, is that even if we'll sign a two-state agreement and we will pull out—like we did from Gaza, like we did from Lebanon—terror will continue, and it will be the same as Gaza and all of Israel will be exposed to the rockets. And one of the main arguments Bibi used, which I think is a ridiculous argument, is that the borders of Israel are indefensible in the east. Are they more indefensible than they are in the south? Are they more indefensible than they are in the north? If they are using rockets, then what is the significance of saying that this line is indefensible? And 20 kilometers it will be more defensible? If the rocket has a range of 60 kilometers, so what, do you have to need a border 60 kilometers from where it was in order to make it more defensible? Because we are not afraid that in the east there will be a ground attack that will cut Israel into two, like we were afraid forty years ago. The problem is that people are talking about the future, but their mind is still resting, parking, in what was forty years ago. But the situation is changed entirely. It’s a different situation. It’s a different reality. The main thing are rockets, which can cross borders anyway. So we built the fence in order to stop the penetration of suicide attackers, and that has been successful, together with other measures that we took, and now it is successful in Egypt, where it stops the flow of those who try to penetrate into Israel from Africa and other places. But in terms of rockets, it's not defensible because it's not supposed to be defensible against [rockets]. It's a ground line. It’s nothing.
So you’re arguing that, in the age of rockets, there is no such thing as a defensible border.
As an absolute defensible border. I think that what we did in Lebanon shows that when you use your power properly, you can create deterrence that will stop them from shooting. And that’s what we did with Lebanon. They can still continue to argue forever that this was a failure, but such a success we never had in all of the history of the wars that we had. Because for the last six-and-a-half years, there was not one bullet shot. Nothing changed in the border except that, as a result of the operation of Israel, they don’t want to shoot these rockets that they have.
What they say is that if we will pull out to more or less the '67 borders, as I proposed—with swaps of territories—then we will not be protected from the possible use of rockets that will be shot at us from the other side. And my argument is twofold. Number one: I first want an agreement that concludes the conflict on the basis of two states, on the basis of my plan, which I guess you are familiar with, with all these parts of it: the '67 borders with swaps, the sharing of Jerusalem into the Arab part and the Jewish part, the international trusteeship of the Holy Basin, and the solution of the refugee issue within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative. (This is very important to emphasize because I have proposed—and I have said it in Annapolis, and I have said it before publicly—that we are ready to negotiate the refugee issue within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative. So the argument that Israel never referred to the Arab Peace Initiative is not correct. It’s absolutely a violation of the truth. I said in Annapolis—you can read it there—that we are prepared to negotiate peace within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative.)
So, number one, I want to have such an agreement because, according to my proposal, if it will be finally signed, it will also say no more claims by the Palestinians, end of conflict. I want it to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, by the U.N. General Assembly, by the U.S. Congress, by the European Congress, by the world. Then, for the first time, Israel will have borders which will be accepted by the international community, which we don’t have today. We don’t have borders. You ask: What are the borders of Israel? You can’t answer this question because there are no borders. If there will be such an agreement, then in principle—formally, officially, universally—there will be borders, and there will be no question what is the State of Israel and what is not the State of Israel? So if there is a violation of the border of Israel, no one can argue about it because the lines will be clear—drawn on the maps, approved by the U.N., approved by everyone in the international community. That’s for me the most important part.
Then comes the other part. People say: And what happens if they will not observe it? Like they don’t observe it in Gaza, for instance. So I said, it is easier to fight terror from within territories that are accepted to be yours internationally than when you fight it from territories which you are considered to occupy, to be an occupier of. Look what happened in Lebanon: For 33 days we were fighting, and no one—no one—even moved a resolution to the U.N., let alone publicly, or any of the countries—except maybe for Iran—who criticized Israel. Because everyone said, ‘Look, what do you want from Israel? They [Hezbollah] attacked Safed. They attacked Haifa. So Israel had to respond. The same is for Gaza. The Cast Lead operation, no one challenged it. And in fact, after the Cast Lead operation, you will recall that all of the leaders of Europe, all of the top leaders of Europe, came to my home the day after in support of the State of Israel. Later, there was the Goldstone Committee. By the way, the Goldstone Committee was formed after I retired. Before I retired, I had an agreement with the secretary-general of the U.N. that would’ve prevented the Goldstone thing). After I retired, there was a new government. The new government said none of the agreements—you know, two states, and so on and so forth—bind us.
You said there was an agreement with Ban Ki-moon?
I had an agreement with Ban Ki-moon that no report will be published before we have a chance to observe it, to argue about it, to present our case, and then to reach a conclusion. The Goldstone Committee was formed in April of 2009, after I was not prime minister. So it was a new political situation. So I think that we could have prevented it. But the Goldstone Committee was formed in order to inquire [into] possible war crimes, not the right of Israel to respond to attacks on Israel because we are occupiers or anything like that. So my argument to those who say, ‘And what if they will not observe the agreement?’, [is], ‘We have the power, we have the knowledge, we have the experience how to fight terror if there will be terror once there is an agreed border. Then they will not be able to say, ‘Hey, what do you want [from] us? You are occupying our territory, therefore we have [a right to] attack you.’ No, it’s not your territory. It’s been agreed by the agreement, by the U.N., by everyone, that this is the border of Israel, this is the territory of Israel. If you cross the border, if you shoot a rocket across the border, then you have violated the agreement, you have violated the sovereignty of Israel. They have a right of self-defense.
So the fact that they may not observe the agreement religiously—you know, up to the last dot—because after we will have an agreement [there will be violations] is not an excuse not to have an agreement. That’s what I say. So the two-state solution is a solution even if it’s not perfect, even if there is a danger that it will be violated, because better to have an agreement and to have agreed boundaries that are recognized by the international community even if there will be violations rather than not have an agreement and be seen as occupiers and being attacked by the entire international community for not wanting to move out our occupation of the territories. That’s my main argument.
Now, I think that if there is a chance for an agreement, it’s only on that basis. Now, you can argue on the fine-tuning of what I proposed, but that’s more or less where it is. There will not be a different agreement. So it’s obvious. And I know from the other side. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] said several times that had we had three, four more months, we would’ve concluded that agreement. So, I think it’s obvious that the framework for the agreement is what I have proposed. There can be no other. Why? Because what else can you aspire for? I said on the basis of 67 lines (just as Obama said after me, with swaps, just as Obama said, [as] Bush said), sharing of Jerusalem (this is what you [Palestinians] always said [you want]. You never said that you want the Knesset. You said that you want the Arab part of Jerusalem. OK). Then, the Holy Basin is not under the sovereignty of either Israel or the Palestinians. It’s under international trusteeship. And there is a solution for the refugees within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative, of course, and there will be an international fund that will compensate both Jews and Palestinians for their suffering and whatever, which can be created, and also there will be security demands from Israel which were already accepted by Bush and were transferred to Obama when Bush retired and the eight points of security demands of Israel which were accepted by the United States, will cover the basic security needs of the State of Israel in the event of an agreement on the basis of what I have proposed.
Abu Mazen has said that if you’d had two more months, you would’ve had an agreement. And [chief Palestinian negotiator] Saeb Erekat told me the same thing when I met with him. I’m wondering if you agree with that.
I agree with it, yes. I think that we could have. We would probably make a fine-tuning—half a percent here, half a percent there, of territory and so on and so forth—also a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza, which was proposed by me—a tunnel which will start in the West Bank and which will exit in Gaza, or vice versa, doesn’t matter, which will allow them free passage from one side [of their state to the other]. Because I said to them, ‘Look, you insist on religiously [returning the borders] up to the point of ’67? Fine, OK, I agree: No connection between Gaza and the West Bank. You want a connection between Gaza and the West Bank? So, you want to change the situation of ’67 also. So, OK, we have to make adjustments. And therefore there will be swaps of territories. But the basis, the size, of territory will be the same.
OK, but you said, two months, you would’ve had a deal. Given that, do you regret not making your offer earlier in the process?
Look, we developed it. Look, then maybe those who wanted to topple me or to overthrow me would have acted earlier. I mean, let’s face it. There was no reason why I was supposed to leave as I left except for what they were manipulating and conspiring against me in order to stop it. So they would have started earlier. They tried to start earlier. But look, it took time. It took time to bring Abu Mazen to the point where we can reach [an agreement]. You know, it’s easier said than done. It took us 36 meetings that we had in order to reach that point where I have put in on the table and said, ‘Sign!’ and I showed him the map, and I said, ‘Sign this!’ And he was not ready. He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes. So that’s why he says—and Saeb Erekat says—that we could have concluded it within two or three months, or four months. I have put it on the table in September. And we talked [at the Annapolis conference about having a deal within] a year from the 27th of November, so it was within that time frame which was accepted.
Can you recount for me that day in as much detail as you can, the day when you met with Abu Mazen and put your offer on the table?
It was on the 16th of September, 2008, in my study at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. We were sitting there after having lunch with our staff, our assistants. I think Yanki [Olmert’s assistant] was in that lunch as well. And afterwards, we went to my study, just Abu Mazen and myself. And we went on talking for two hours. I pulled out the map, I showed him the map. I showed him how I am prepared to make the swaps (in areas which surprised him. For instance, part of it was in the north, not far from Tirat Zvi, just across from the border. Part of it was not far from Jenin. So in areas which were good areas, not just a desert part somewhere down the line near Kerem Shalom all of it. No, it was spread across the border lines evenly, more or less—partly near Jerusalem and partly near Lachish and partly in the Judean Desert and partly near Gaza. So he saw all of it).
[Olmert’s assistant points out that Olmert’s Palestinian state excluded the contested “E1” area upon which Netanyahu has sought to build a new Jewish settlement.]
Without E1. E1 was supposed to remain in the State of Israel. And Ariel was supposed to stay in the State of Israel. Look, what I proposed to him was 6.3 percent of the territory that we will then keep inside Israel, and I proposed to him 5.8-percent swap, plus the free-passage [corridor between the West Bank and Gaza]. Now, how do you measure the free passage? Only as a half-percent? Maybe you can measure it by more. But I left a certain margin so that in the event that he will come to me and he will say, ‘No, I want it 5.8,’ so the swap will be 5.8 against 5.8 and the free passage will be measured less than a half-percent. So I left it for the fine-tuning process, for the last fine-tuning process. But this was more or less). He looked at it and he said, ‘This is quite serious. I have to admit this is very serious.’ He was rather surprised himself that after all these days and talks and meetings and meetings and meetings and meetings, I finally put down on the table something which was for me, it was a heartbreaking process, to offer to him that Jerusalem will be split.
I was the mayor of Jerusalem. Before I became prime minister, as mayor of Jerusalem, I became world-renowned because of my fight for the unity of Jerusalem. Here I come, after all these years, and I propose to him, first time in the history of the State of Israel that someone proposes to him a sharing of Jerusalem along the lines of ’67 with [Israeli retention of] the new neighborhoods. But the 6.3 percent included already everything in Jerusalem that was added to the original ’67 lines, and we offered also the swap in return, number one. Number two, I proposed this compromise on the Holy Basin, which was also very dramatic if you think about in terms of Jewish history. First time that a prime minister of Israel proposes that we will not be the sovereigns over the Temple Mount. Now, one can say ‘OK, no one agrees that you will be the exclusive sovereign over the Temple Mount,’ but no one from Israel ever said otherwise. This was the first time that as prime minister, I proposed it. But I said also that they will not have sovereignty over the Temple Mount, that it will be managed by the international community through five nations: America, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians, and Israel.
What else do you remember him saying? He said, ‘this is quite serious”...
I said to him, “Sign! Sign it! President, sign it now.” He said, ”well, you know, I have to think about it.” I said, “Don’t think about it. Sign it now. I want to tell you one thing: In the next fifty years, there will be no prime minister in Israel who will propose to you something similar to this.” If you are not going to sign it now, you are going to lose an historical opportunity and you will live to regret it. Sign it. Let's take a decision. He said, 'well, you know, I am not an expert in maps, so I must ask an expert on maps to look at it. So I said, 'OK, it doesn't have to take a long time. You know, why not tomorrow morning, my expert and your expert—together with Saeb Erekat and Shalom Turjemann [Olmert's top aide]—they will be sitting together, and together with Saeb and the other side's map expert and our map expert, they will go through the specific points that you may want to ask [about] and [have] explain[ed] to you, and all of this. So he said, 'fine.' So we called to the room Saeb Erekat and Shalom Turjemann. And we said, 'tomorrow morning, you have to sit with the map experts and conclude this argument. It may take you a few hours, take your time, and as long as it takes, but I want you to conclude it tomorrow because I want to sign it this week.'
And my plan was—I have to say very honestly my plan was not to bring it to the cabinet for a vote, I would have informed, but not to bring it to a vote in the Knesset or in the cabinet—first of all to bring it to the U.N. together with Abu Mazen, to ask Abu Mazen to fly to the U.N. Remember, it was the 16th of September, so the General Assembly was supposed to convene a few days later, and that's why the timing was so important. And my idea was that when the U.N. Security Council unanimously will approve it, and when the General Assembly will almost unanimously approve it—perhaps no Syria or not Iran, I don't know, but 190 nations will approve it—then I don't care what the Knesset will say. I'll bring it to elections. And also, I had a plan—all was worked out—that I'll bring all the leaders of the world to Jerusalem, to the points of border between the two sides. And they would all come. Bush. And Sarkozy. And Putin. And the president of China. And the president of Japan. And you name it, everyone will come. And they will all say, 'This is the peace between the two countries, and we all support it!' And then I'll say, 'in three months, we have elections.' And my idea was that we would have received an approval of 70 percent. And I think he would have received 70 percent support for it. But he didn't answer.
What happened? You couldn't reach him afterwards?
The next day, Saeb Erekat called Shalom Turjemann and said, 'I have to leave. There was a mistake. The chairman was not aware that we have to be in Amman.' And they disappeared. Then came the Cast Lead. And they say that they met with Bush in December and Bush said that on the 8th of January, there was supposed to be a meeting between Turjemann and Saeb Erekat in New York to conclude. Now, I was asked, 'Why didn't you come? Why didn't you send Turjemann? I said, 'had we known that there was supposed to be a meeting, we would have sent Turjemann right away.' But we just didn't know that there was supposed to be a meeting. We didn't know. No one talked to us about it, neither Bush nor them, so I don't know what they are talking about. They say that there was supposed to be a meeting, but I never knew about it.
It seems to me, looking at the leaks that came out from the Palestine Papers and the things you've said publicly, that the greatest differences were not on Jerusalem and refugees, as has so often been said in the media, but it was really a question of territory—land swaps, borders.
But there was not such a big [gap]. Probably the only issue which would have remained for further tuning would be Ariel, which is a relatively small territorial issue. I think that there was a way to solve it and to narrow down [the surrounding area that Israel would annex]. What was the big issue of Ariel? It's that it goes further down into the territories, so there were ways in order to create a direct passage through another tunnel, through bridges, and so on and so forth. It would have been resolved, I think. And of course, my idea was that you would have come that close where less than a half-percent of the territories were still left outside the agreement, that with the assistance of the international community and the United States of America, would have brought the two sides into a complete agreement. And that's why we needed about two months, maybe.
But as you know, Ariel was not the only settlement they were refusing at the time. In the map he gave to you, Ma'ale Adumim, Har Homa, Efrat, Givat Zeev were excluded. Did he give you reason to believe that those four could stay?
He didn't give me any map. He talked about some of these places, but he didn't give me any map. It's true that he had a map in which he said, 'in my map, all of the Jewish settlements together occupy only 1.9 percent of the territories, so why do you need 6 percent?' But he knew that you can't leave sixty enclaves in the territories and think that you have solved something. It's impossible. And also, he knew at that time that already Bush in his letter of 14th of April 2004 that the Jewish demographic centers will remain under Israeli sovereignty in exchange for swaps, so he knew that talking about Ma'ale Adumim is good for the sake of talking, but not for the sake of an agreement.
But did he ever say offhand that 'yeah, I can accept Ma'ale Adumim, but Ariel is a different story'? That's what you seem to imply.
He didn't explicity say that. He was careful. But if you ask me whether I could feel that the still-main issue of controversy would remain Ariel, the answer is yes. Not the other places. He knew that Beitar and Gush Etzion would never be returned to them. These were Israeli territories before '48, there were settlements that were destroyed by them after '48. And we have rebuilt them, but there was no way that we would have returned them. And that's why we talked about swaps.
On security, Abbas has been quoted as saying that that file was finalized. Do you agree with that?
More or less, yes. They agreed that they will have no army. I agreed that there will be no Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley because—as Condi Rice writes in her book, there was an idea that the border would be protected from the Jordanian side so as to prevent any free passage of [weapons].
And with refugees, I know you offered 5,000 over the course of five years.
I would have compromised perhaps for slightly more, but slightly more. One thing I have to say which Abu Mazen said—I don't want to quote him more because I don't think that it would be fair considering the nature of the sensitivities that we're talking about. When I first told Abu Mazen of my approach, this was on the 23rd of December 2006, a year before Annapolis. We started to talk a lot before Annapolis, so Annapolis was not the beginning of negotiations. It was a landmark in the process of negotiations, but it was not the beginning. I said to him, 'everything is on the table, including Jerusalem and the refugees,' and he said, 'I know how sensitive you are to the refugees. I can tell you one thing: We are not aspiring to change the nature of your country.' Which one could interpret as more or less what he said recently when he said, 'I was born in Safed, but when I talk about a Palestinian state, I talk about '67 borders."
But what were the numbers? It was pretty close, no?
He didn't talk to me about numbers. I think he talked to Condi about numbers. And he talked to Condi about 40,000, I think. Or he said that Barak was ready to give him 60,000, and she said no.
He used the number 40,000?
I think that someone there used [it], either he or she. I don't know. I don't want to say definitely who. But their answer was in the end—I can tell you something that I don't think was ever published—but the Americans said to them: The most that you can get as refugees coming back to Israel is the number of people that you can stick into the Muqata in Ramallah. How many people can you stick into the Muqata? 15,000? 20,000? More or less, that's what they said to them that they would support.
But you got the sense that, more or less, they were asking for something in the neighborhood of 40,000?
That's what they were asking. They were talking to the Americans about it. But I never talked about 40,000. Never.
But just to be 100% clear, their demands on this issue...
Were never definite. Were never down to this resolute number. 40,000 or 28,000 or 44,000. Never. They were dropping all kinds of numbers, but there was never a position which said, 'We will agree there will be 40,000 or 20,000 or 25,000 or 15,000. They never said it.
But I'm just trying to establish what the range of discussion was because I still hear from very senior former leaders, current leaders, who still believe that Abu Mazen wants to flood Israel with hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of refugees.
No way, no way, no way, no way, no way. That's not true. I never heard it from him. I heard the contrary. I can say, look, no one other than me can say what Abu Mazen proposed because no one was authorized to hear a proposal but the prime minister, and I talked with Abu Mazen, not with assistants, not with Saeb. I talked with Saeb a lot, but formally, the one that represented the Palestinians was Abu Mazen, and the one who represented Israel was me, and we were sitting together. And he never, ever said something similar to his desire to flood Israel with hundreds of thousands of refugeees. Never, ever.
I want to zoom out and talk about your evolution because, of course, you in the seventies were one of Israel's most right-wing politicians.
I was right wing. I never denied it. I never denied that I changed my position. I changed my position particularly at the time that I was mayor of Jerusalem. That's when I started to understand that some of the dreams can't be realized. That it's good for a dream. It's good for a slogan. It's good for someone standing in front of 20,000 people in a big rally or in a big demonstration and saying, 'Jerusalem is forever the united eternal capital of the Jewish people.'
As mayor of Jerusalem, I wanted the government to invest the necessary funds in order to unite the city in an effective manner with full rights for the Palestinians living in Jerusalem, so the world would say, 'okay, it can work.' I built eighteen schools for them in the east side. Teddy Kolleck [Olmert's predecessor] didn't build one school there, for the Arabs. I invested lots of money. I invested in ten years maybe twenty-five times more than what Teddy Kolleck invested in twenty-eight years in the east side of Jerusalem. Yet as senior officials in the government told me several times in those years when I was fighting with them and yelling at them—including prime ministers—Jerusalem is too big for Israel. I mean, the solution of this issue in a manner that will really unite the city and equalize the Palestinians living in the east side of Jerusalem to the same standard of living, the same quality of life, the same infrastructure, the same everything—it's too big for us.
And then I realized that we will talk forever about uniting the city but we'll never unite it. So therefore I reached a conclusion that if we can't do it in Jerusalem, how can we do it in other places? If in Jerusalem—which is the symbol, which is the core, which is the heart, which is the place about which everyone cries and talks about with such rhetoric—where else can we do it? And that led me to the conclusion that if we want to be true to ourselves, we have to decide to make a painful choice: What do we want more: Do we want the land or do we want the nature of the State of Israel? Do we want to be left isolated by the entire international community or do we want to regain the stature that Israel once enjoyed for being a country that other countries feel friendly with, close with, supportive of, and so on and so forth? Once I reached that conclusion, I was ready to fight for my convictions.
And Sharon had a similar evolution.
Yes, but he never reached the point that I reached.
I'm wondering if you think he might have reached that point.
I think so. I think that he wold have reached it. Perhaps it would have taken him longer. Perhaps he would have retired before he would have come to that point. I don't know. Don't forget that Sharon, when he collapsed, was already close to 80—78 or something. So he knew that he didn't have much time.
But what was he planning to do after the 2006 election? Was he planning to do another unilateral withdrawal?
There is no question. In the original plan of the Disengagement, Sharon thought about pulling out from 17 settlements in the West Bank. Only later we have reduced the number of settlements in the West with the advice of the Americans who though it will be impossible to pull out at the same time from 17 settlements in Gaza and 17 settlements in the West Bank.
So thirteen others in the northern West Bank?
Northern and central.
What was his ultrimate goal?
I think that what Sharon was thinking about was similar to what I have proposed before 2006, the Convergence Plan, that if we will not reach an agreement with the Palestinians, we will pull out to borders that will be acceptable to Israel on a unilateral basis. But that is my theory. I have to say that I never heard it explicitly from Sharon.
And he didn't talk about dividing Jerusalem.
He did not talk about dividing Jerusalem. Not to me.
We saw each other about eight years ago at an event. I was in college at the time, and it was right before Disengagement. And I think I even asked you a question. And your answer was very similar to some of things Benjamin Netanyahu says today. You talked about 67 being indefensible, you talked about the unity of Jerusalem. And I'm wondering whether you think Benjamin Netanyahu could also maybe go your way in the next term.
The problem is, if Benjamin Netanyahu will come to it in another eight years, it will be too late. And I don't think so. I don't think that Netanyahu has ever changed one inch of his positions. Whenever it came to a turning point, he only turned to the right rather than to the left. So I doubt very much. And I don't think that his political position today allows him. He was dramatically weakened. Netanyahu from the 23rd of January is a very weak political leader—very, very weak. Very dependent. He has twenty members of Likud in the Knesset, which ten are from the extreme right. And we all know Netanyahu. Netanyahu at the end of the day cares a lot about many things. But mostly he cares for his political survivability. And you can't run a government in such a crucial situation when what you think [about] is first how to survive politically.
It's no secret that you explored running against him this time.
I was considering it, but I reached a conclusion that the best time will be the next time.
So you're definitely going to take the plunge.
I seriously think about running against him.
What was it that prevented you from running?
My assessment that the time was not yet ready for a comeback that will make me prime minister. I was not interested in being minister of defense or minister of foreign affairs. And I think it will be easier to run against Bibi next time. Much easier. If he chooses to run, which I'm not certain. I think he might be defeated earlier in his own party. I think that he might have difficulties forming a government in the first place. I think that if he will form a government, it may be a very unpopular government, [a] very divided government. I think he will create the type of momentum that will bring him down. Don't forget. One has to remember. Everyone talks about the big right-wing camp and so on and so forth. In 2006, Likud received twelve seats, and [Lieberman] got eleven seats, so together they both had 23 seats, and I got myself 29 seats. So I hate to get stuck into all kinds of fixed ideas that there are certain things which are permanent forever and that will not change and that the State of Israel is a right-wing [country]. It's not a right wing [country]. In these last elections, the right wing got 61 [seats], 61 against 59. And I'm not even certain that all of the 61 are really really right wing. There are enough in Shas that are not exactly.
But do you believe that by the time that you come back—even if it's just two years from now—that there will even be an argument for you to make? Because maybe Abu Mazen won't be around by then.
Look, I don't know. I know only one thing. I know that the troubles Israel will be living with from now on will be such that maybe we will not have to use all these arguments so powerfully and so forthrightly because I think that things will become very obvious to the people. You see, I don't know that there was any particular argument in this last election that made the difference. I'm very very friendly and close to Yair Lapid—and I think I know something about what motivated and what was the main thrust of his campaign. Do you know of any dramatic saying by Yair Lapid that made the difference? Any big message that made the difference? No. It was the growing dissatisfaction with this government. The growing dissatisfaction with the personality of Netanyahu. The growing dissatisfaction with the nature of Likud. The growing dissatisfaction with the status of Israel in the international community. All these created a buzz that pulled Yair Lapid. And obviously, of course, the personality of Lapid. He's a young, attractive man that was more attractive than Shelly Yacimovich or Tzipi Livni. That's why he got most of these votes. But they were all candidates to get this support. All those who supported these other parties didn't want to vote for Bibi or for any of his affiliates.
Did you encourage President Peres to run when you decided not to?
No, I didn't encourage him to run. I was curious whether he had such thoughts because I heard that people were talking about it, so I was curious to see if he is interested.
Do you think he was considering it?
I think that he was happy to know that people at this time in his life are still thinking about him. but I don't think that any given time he was seriously considering it.
You've been a great defender of President Obama on his Israel record. And I'm wondering, now that he's entering his second term, what you think he should do on this issue?
Look, I am not advising foreign governments. I can spell out my position. I can say what I think Israel should do. But I don't think that I have to advise President Obama what he should do—that he has to decide himself. I can say only one thing—that I want a two-state solution, and anyone who will be helpful to achieve this will be welcomed.
But if Bibi is not willing to make the compromises on his own, is it the place of the American government to push him?
That is for the American government to decide. I can't tell an American government what to do. I don't think it's my duty. I don't think it will be appropriate for me to say that. He has to decide what are his priorities. I think that Obama is smart enough. But I know that, at the other end, Obama doesn't want to fight Israel. Because he's a friend of Israel, he doesn't want to fight Israel. If he will reach the conclusion that Israel is not prepared to make any move forward, he may decide, 'Leave me alone.' But I don't think that Israel can afford to allow President Obama to step aside. I don't think it's in the interest of Israel. I don't think that from the point of view of Israel, that this is the right thing for Israel to want. I think that we want to drag him in to this because if someone thinks that you can keep him away from the political issues and yet keep him into every security issue that we have and every serious issue that we have to cope with—financial issue, economic issue, and so on and so forth—and he will draw this distinction and will say, 'I'm entirely committed to help every adventure that you have in mind, but I will not intervene in your political process," that will not work. So I don't want the American president to step aside. I want him to be [involved], but what he should do, he should decide.
Do you think he should put forward a plan with specifics on Jerusalem and refugees.
He doesn't have to. There is a plan: My plan.
Why do you think he's gotten a reputation as an anti-Israel president?
Because he advocated the same policies more or less that Bush did. But he had a prime minister of Israel who had entirely opposite policies to the ones that the former prime minister of Israel had. So there was an almost inevitable difference and separation and confrontation on issues of policy. And I think that the prime minister of Israel was not smart enough to prevent himself from entering into issues which were not his and which aggravated the situation on a personal basis. Lecturing to the president of America in front of the TV cameras, waving his finger in the face of the president of America, is not something that you're supposed to do. Saying to America, 'We don't care what you say about Iran. We know what to do. We will do what we want to do,' and at the same time to come to America and say 'we need you to do this and we need you to do that' is not a way to build up good relations and personal trust. And the devotion to the Republican Party, I think, was a mistake. I like the Republican Party. I have many Republican friends. But I would never intervene in the politics of America. This is not my position. This is not my duty. It's inappropriate.
So, in your mind, President Obama is no less pro-Israel than President Bush.
I don't know enough [about] Obama to draw this comparison. I think that in his political statements about a potential solution and his commitment to the State of Israel in the United Nations and in the international arena, he was very friendly to Israel. That I can say.
I want to ask about something I heard you say at SAIS in Washington, DC about something Erdogan told you—that you were wasting your time talking to Abbas and that you should talk to Hamas instead.
Erdogan was close as an Islamic religious party to the Islamic religious party on the Palestinian side, which was Hamas. So he thought, 'Why don't you talk to Hamas also? Why do you only talk with Abu Mazen? If you want an agreement, you have to talk with Hamas.' I think he was skeptical that Abbas can reach a conclusion. But at the same time, eventually he invited Abu Mazen to a visit in Turkey, and he supported him.
One final question, just to wrap up everything. When I look at these election results and we see that even though the right wing suffered a big blow, if you look at the parties that did well, you have not justNetanyahu who has not been talking about solving about the conflict, but Yair Lapid did not make it a priority. Shelly Yacimovich did not make it a priority. And the two parties that really did talk about ending the conflict—Tzipi Livni and Meretz—got one tenth-of the Knesset.
And Kadima. I spoke for Kadima as well. And I spoke about it very strongly. So three parties, I think, talked about it. But it doesn't matter. In the end of the day, the position of Lapid and Shelly and Tzipi and Meretz and Kadima is quite clear about it: They are in favor of a political solution. But it's true that the Palestinians also have to do [things]. You ask me about ourselves because I talked about Israel and I talk from the point of view of Israel. But I have a few things to say to the Palestinians about their obligations and what they have to do and the risks that they have to take and the matters that they have to deal with and I hope that they will. They have a shared responsibility. I don't put all the blame on the Israeli side. There is a lot of blame [on their side]. Certainly there is blame on them for not responding to my proposal positively.
But when I was here in 2003 for a year, the conflict was everything. Nobody could ignore this issue. And today, if you were to land from outer space and to go to Tel Aviv, you wouldn't even know that there was a conflict going on.
Wait again and you will find that it again comes into the profile. It's just a matter of time.
Ben Birnbaum is a writer based in Jerusalem. He can be reached at BenBirnbaumTNR@gmail.com. Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.