Exclusive Interview: Ehud Olmert
Israel’s prime ministers have never had a shortage of challenges, but Ehud Olmert, under fire after a government commission harshly criticized his handling of last year’s war in Lebanon, has an especially full plate. In an exclusive interview with Hadassah Magazine—which took place after some details of the commission’s interim report were leaked to the Israeli press but before the full text was officially released—he talks about the strategy behind the conflict in Lebanon, his own popularity and the political and personal challenges of leading the Jewish state (see accompanying article, below).
Q. Almost a year has passed since last summer’s traumatic war in Lebanon. What was the greatest lesson learned from that conflict?
A. The main lesson is that we have to define the goals and then move forward, sticking to those goals no matter what. One cannot resort to any appearance of weakness… during the fighting. You must focus on the larger objective and stick to it. I do believe that to a large degree, this is what we did. This does not buy you popularity. I have learned, however, that when you are running national affairs, you cannot be seduced to look for popularity or quick fixes at the expense of long-term strategic interests which you are convinced are essential to the secure future of your country.
Q. Can you be more specific about what Israel sought to accomplish in that war?
A. There were four objectives. First was full implementation of U.N. Security Council decision 1559, extending Lebanese sovereignty over all of Lebanon, including the south. This was achieved through [Resolution] 1701, which included the deployment of Lebanese Army troops to the south for the first time since the late 1960’s, and the backing of international forces. Second, the complete removal of all Hezbollah fortifications south of the Litani River. This was achieved in full. Third, a commitment to the disarming of all terrorist organizations in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. This is part of [Resolution] 1701, and it is still being addressed. Finally, the unconditional return of the two captured soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. This is not yet achieved. I have appointed a full-time team to realize this return; bringing our soldiers home to Israel is of paramount importance and a primary objective. We will not rest until this is achieved and are sparing no effort to bring it about.
Q. You concede that your standing has suffered since the war?
A. I am first to admit that, at this point, my popularity is very low, the [Kadima] Party’s popularity as a result is very low as well. I remain optimistic, however, and I think that when we emerge from the current situation, Kadima will resurface as strongly as it ever was and will become the winning force in the next elections. Nothing in life comes easily. I am a long-distance runner, so I suggest things be judged at the end of the marathon, not at the beginning.
Q. Will Iran one day acquire nuclear arms capability?
A. We will do everything—I mean the Western world, the U.S.A. and the members of the United Nations Security Council and many other countries—to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Q. What do you think of a regional rather than a bilateral peace process, an idea initially advocated a few years ago by Saudi Arabia and stirring interest once again?
A. I am ready to examine the Saudi initiative in a favorable way. It should be discussed. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I do believe it is closer to what may eventually become a basis for a dialogue between us and the Arabs than any Arab position in the past.
Q. What did you learn about the public’s attitudes toward Ariel Sharon?
A. One of the most striking things I witnessed was the [changing] perceptions. One day before Arik Sharon collapsed, he was the most criticized political figure in Israel. They were tearing him apart and did not hesitate to call him the worst possible names in the most personal ways conceivable. Literally 24 hours later, he had become a saint. The manner in which a leader is judged retroactively is entirely different than when he is in office.
Q. How did this affect your own first days in office?
A. Until January 3, 2006, I was the vice prime minister of a real-world person who was attacked and blamed for so much on a daily basis by his political opponents and the media. Suddenly, an entirely different individual was my predecessor. This dramatic change felt very strange.
Q. How did Sharon’s collapse affect you and Kadima?
A. Kadima was still very, very new then. Some of the people who were working for Sharon had difficulty adjusting to the idea that I was not him. Many of his patterns of governing did not fit my own personality, yet perhaps some people expected me to continue without changing anything. For example, I am much more verbal than Sharon, I was far more mobile. Remember that [even before his last stroke] Sharon was already weak and did not move around the country so much during that period.
Q. As mayor of Jerusalem, you were often seen jogging its streets in the early morning. You have also always worked long hours. Have you retained any semblance of private life to accompany the nonstop demands of office?
A. Life changes. The security presence is one key part of this. Again, it [began] on that fateful night in January. Shortly after midnight there was a knock at my door, and the chief of the security detail came into my house and said, “Mr. Olmert, we are now in charge of your protection. The house is surrounded, and we must be near you all the time.” I had security coverage for years, but as prime minister it is entirely different. You don’t go somewhere in one car, only in a convoy. There is no freedom, no flexibility. You cannot arrive anywhere without preparations to guarantee that it has been isolated, swept and secured. No one can see you, no one can touch you, no one can come close to you. In this respect, life has changed dramatically. Also there is the enormous exposure. I have been in public life for 30 years…. Yet nothing even comes close to the exposure of the prime minister. Everything that deals with your life, your personality, your family, everything that was ever said or written during your life, anywhere at any event, becomes of public interest. This is the least pleasant part of being in my position….
By the way, I [still] run daily.
Q. You know the traditional fate of new centrist parties in Israel. They rise, they win one degree of power or another—and then they disappear. How is Kadima different?
A. The beauty of Kadima is that it responds to a fundamental need in the political life of Israel. For decades, the two dominant forces in Israeli politics were the right and the left. If you didn’t want the socialist party, you had to vote for Likud. If you refused to support the extreme right wing, as the Likud turned out to be over the years, then the only alternative was the Labor Party, the left, the socialists. The vacuum between these parties grew, which Kadima filled…. We took a party that…was created within three to four months, pitted it against the two parties that had dominated Israeli politics for almost 60 years and we won the election….
Q. Why is there now massive corruption at Israel’s highest levels, from the president to cabinet ministers?
A. I don’t think this is a description of the objective situation. True, there has never been so much talk about it. But I think our country is much more honest than many other countries we are compared to. Every nation has its share, including every Western democracy. Democracies talk about corruption, dictatorships do not. There, if someone talks, he pays the price for it. The Israeli democracy is very wild and undisciplined in all its aspects…. I hope that all the attention shows very clearly that Israel is battling corruption, not only that corruption exists.
Q. What accomplishment do you hope will be the largest part of your political legacy?
A. My main desire is to make life safer and more secure for the people of Israel and the Jewish people everywhere…. Every single thing I do stems from this commitment. Having said [that], I am careful not to summarize my service retroactively at a time when I am still looking ahead rather than to the past.
Prime Minister Under Fire
May 1—After the Winograd Commission released its interim report on April 30 criticizing the Israeli government’s management of last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that “though serious mistakes were made, mainly by me,” he would not resign.
“This is a serious and difficult report,” he added. “There were mistakes by the decision-makers, we need to start to fix the shortcomings; there’s much to be done. The presentation of the report opens a new chapter of fixing mistakes and learning lessons.”
The critical report, however, prompted calls from the public and from members of Olmert’s party, Kadima, for him to step down.
The five-member commission’s report focused only on the lead up to the war and the first 6 days of the 34-day conflict. It put the blame for the war’s failure on the inexperience of government leaders, who entered it without proper preparation or strategy. “The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one,” the report concluded. “He made his decision without systematic consultation with others, especially outside the Israel Defense Forces, despite not having experience in external-political and military affairs.”
Though the report assigned Olmert “supreme and comprehensive responsibility,” it pointed even more harshly to the lack of preparedness of Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, then-chief of staff of the IDF, who resigned in January; and Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, whose resignation was rumored to be imminent. “All three made a decisive personal contribution” to the errors in judgement, the report said. The governmental commission urged “fundamental rectification of the problems,” including setting up a state-run crisis-management center.
Olmert had only been prime minister for a few months when Hezbollah crossed into Israel on July 12, 2006, abducting two soldiers and killing eight others. During the war, northern Israel was bombarded by 4,000 rockets. Israeli airstrikes destroyed nearly all of Hezbollah’s arsenal of long-range missiles and, some analysts say, the militia lost up to half its fighting force. About 1,200 Lebanese and 158 Israelis were killed before the United Nations brokered a cease-fire on August 12. Two of Israel’s objectives, however—retrieving its kidnapped soldiers and crushing Hezbollah—were not realized.