An interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Jlife recently sat down with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to talk about his political leadership, Zionism, Jerusalem, the two-state solution, moral vision, and views on current trends in Israeli society. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. For the full audio version of the podcast visit “https://www.youtube.com/@Jlife-ocjewishlife6396” (you can also search “Jlife with Daniel” on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Rabbi Daniel Levine: When we look at the Jewish people in the last 2000 years, the idea that we actually have our own state with political autonomy, would have seemed incredible, almost fantastical, to Jews living over the past 2000 years spread out throughout the diaspora. What does it mean to you, as somebody who’s been able to be basically the most powerful Jew, not just in the world when you served as prime minister, but really, in the span of Jewish history?
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: Well, let’s put things in the right place. A prime minister of Israel is never the strongest Jew from a historic perspective. You may be the most powerful person in a time that you’re serving as prime minister for the State of Israel, perhaps not far beyond it. But for me, of course, this was a very exciting experience, because like many of my generation, my parents came from outside of Israel, to live in the state of Israel. And, in the case of my parents, as in the case of many other Jews, the reason they came to Israel was not because they were running away from persecutions, but because as Zionists they chose to live where they felt that Jews should be, which is in the ancient homeland. My parents came from China, where they grew up in the northeast part of China in Manchuria. And, they never suffered any antisemitic experience. Jews in China never had any problems with the Chinese population. So as far as they were concerned, they could live there indefinitely. They chose to go to Israel because they wanted to live in what they dreamt would one day be the State of Israel.
DL: So that attachment to Israel and Zionism that you’re talking about in terms of your parents, and that you adopted has much less to do with antisemitism and more to do with the Jewish people’s historic dream to return.
EO: This was of great significance for people like me, my brothers, my mates in school, in the neighborhood where I live; they all were sons and daughters of parents that made it to Israel before the creation of the State of Israel. They were very proud, very devoted to the future and to the well-being and strength of the state vis-à-vis its ability to fulfill its destiny, which is to become a secure homeland for the Jewish people.
DL: So let’s talk about what that means for Israel to be a secure homeland for the Jewish people. Possibly what you are most famous for, at least in the American Jewish community and in the American political community, is the Annapolis conference in 2007. This Annapolis conference was the last actual attempt by an Israeli government prime minister to try for a two-state solution. Now, of course, the Annapolis conference failed, Abbas said no, but in your words, why do you think that failed? What were you trying to do in terms of your 2007 deal? And, do you think looking forward, something like that will ever be possible again?
EO: The negotiating process between me and the Palestinian leader started in December of 2006. By the time Annapolis took place, we had already established a very strong personal trust between the two of us. And, we were very advanced in the efforts to create a framework, which was essential for what we hoped would become the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. I think that the efforts made by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at that time were very significant. That is because it is one thing for me and Abu Mazen to sit in the study of the prime minister, the Balfour residence, and discuss future options. But, it was another thing for us to appear in front of the whole world with the presence of well over 60 foreign ministers and heads of world organizations, in front of all the cameras of every network of any consequence, from every corner of the world. Together, the president of the PA, the prime minister of Israel, the president of the United States of America. All stretching hands to each other, holding hands and making peace. I think that the Annapolis event made a very powerful presentation to the international community and to the populations of the countries involved.
DL: You grew up on the Israeli right, you were a member of Likud, the ideological position that wants a united Jerusalem and also believes that Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, should become or is a part of Israel, yet you famously offered basically the most gracious offer of any Israeli prime minister, both in terms of giving back about 90 to 95%—depending on which map you trust—of the West Bank and also famously dividing Jerusalem. Was this an ideological shift that you underwent?
EO: I never offered a division of Jerusalem. I was ready to get rid of the Arab parts of Jerusalem which were never part of the Jewish Jerusalem, Jewish history, or in other parts of Jewish memories.
DL: So you’re talking about what we would consider to be Jerusalem in the Tanakh and Jewish literature as opposed to what Jerusalem is on a map today.
EO: Jerusalem on a map today is not really Jerusalem. The refugee camp in Shuafat has nothing to do with Jewish history or Jewish Jerusalem. The same goes for other areas Beit Hanina, Sheikh Jarrah, Isawiya and other parts of the city of Jerusalem, which were never part of Judaism. The focus of everything that we were praying for, yearning for, dreaming of was the holy places for the Jewish people, which were the Temple Mount and Western Wall and these parts of the city, but not what turned out to be the Arab villages surrounding these parts of Jerusalem.
So there was never a proposition to divide the city. I wanted to keep the Jewish part of the city entirely in the hands of the State of Israel. The only thing that I proposed, which was a very dramatic compromise, was that for the sake of achieving peace we would not have exclusive political sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount is very important for us for obvious reasons. We’ve been dreaming about it and we’ve been praying for it. When we prayed for Zion we prayed for the Temple Mount not for any other sections of what has eventually become the municipal map of Jerusalem. However, we all know that the Temple Mount is also an enormously sensitive place for Muslims. And, the Old City of Jerusalem is an enormously sensitive place for Christians. So now tell me by any moral justice, who deserves to have exclusive political sovereignty, in this section of the city? Jews, Muslims, Christians?
If you want to make peace, if you want to find a way to bring together all these different people, all these different faiths, all these different attitudes, and make them live together, you need to give up the desire to have an exclusive position that is denied by the others.
What you have to do is guarantee that every believer will have free access to the holy basis of his faith, which is what I proposed. I said there will not be in the holy basin of Jerusalem exclusive political sovereignty for the Jews only, or for the Palestinians or for the Christians. Instead, it will be dominated by a trust of five nations. But, there will be free access for Jews to the Temple Mount and the Wall, for Arabs to the Aqsa Mosque, for Christians to the churches and so on and so forth. It didn’t really require any dramatic change in my ideological approach. What it required was to recognize the realities of our lives and to set up priorities that are congruent with what is best for the future of the Jewish people.
DL: And, what about in terms of the West Bank? Obviously, if we’re considering Jewish history, most of the Tanakh took place in Judea and Samaria right in the specific area that would be given to the Palestinians in a two-state solution. Certainly, growing up on the ideological right, I can’t imagine that when you were 25 you would have been in favor of a two-state solution. So what ended up changing?
EO: I was not, in the beginning, in favor of a two-state solution, but I reached the conclusion that there will never be peace without a separation between us and the Palestinians. And, the question is what is more important: to take full control of every bit of territory, and to become completely isolated and boycotted in the international community, as we are becoming. Or, to say that land is important, but more important is the ability to live in peace and be able to establish friendly relationships with other people that will then have the right to exercise self-determination, just as we did.
I think that there are different and conflicting attitudes in Jewish tradition for this kind of solution. Historically, all of the greatest Jewish moral leaders and religious leaders would have preferred Pikuach Nefesh over territory, peace over territory. Not just because someone threatens us if we don’t, but because we decided that it would be best for us if we pull out from certain territories.
In recent years, particularly after the Six Day War, there are sections of the population which have become messianic and are dominated by a euphoric approach to the territories, and for them, this is the single most important thing in life. More than living in peace, more than allowing people to have rights and so on. I think that this is not Jewish. I think that this is not represented by the tradition, the legacy of our ancestors. And, I don’t think that we have to surrender to these messianic dreams, we have to be realistic, we have to be practical. We have to think about the option of creating relationships with our neighbors and ultimately with the international community that will provide us the necessary conditions to live in the best possible way.
DL: I hear you sort of making two different arguments in terms of why it’s important to either pull back from certain parts of land or to trade land for peace. One is a global argument, for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel it would be better if we got rid of certain amounts of land, both in terms of the easing of international pressure and second that it would allow for a peaceful separation and Israel wouldn’t have to worry about what to do with millions of Palestinians living under their political or military control. The other answer you’re giving, which I want to dig into, is about ethical concerns regarding the Palestinians. You’re using the language of human rights. Do you think what Israel is doing is abrogating certain human rights? Is Israel doing things that you believe to be unethical vis-a-vis the Palestinians—forgetting any other international concerns about how people see Jews or Israel in the international media?
EO: We may not have wanted to do things which are unethical. Had we been asked, do we want to do this? Is it acceptable by our fundamental standards and tradition? The answer is no.
But, in the practicality of every day life under the constraints that were created… if we want to control territories which are inhabited by millions of people that don’t want us, that’s what it does. It forces us to take measures which can’t be interpreted any other way than violating the basic human rights of other people. And, this is something that we have to be very careful about. We can’t believe that the rights that we think we have justify the means we take in order to exercise them.
DL: So, what you’re saying is you believe that Israel has a right to security, self-determination and peace, perhaps even a right to the entire land, but that doesn’t justify the means of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians to get there.
EO: I think that while we certainly have a right to dream of having all these territories which were part of our history for thousands of years, it is not compatible with what it requires to be there. So we have to make a choice. What is more important for us as both humans and Jews? To exercise our rights for land or to recognize the same rights that we expect for ourselves also be given to others? I think that if we look back at the history of the Jewish people, we were always a lot more tolerant in recognizing the rights of other people. What are we doing now when we try to deny the rights of other people? The same rights that we want to secure for ourselves?
DL: So let’s unpack this in terms of what’s been happening in Israel recently. A few weeks ago I recorded a podcast about Itamar Ben Gvir, the new MK who has Kahanist views. Israel as a society has certainly moved to the right in the past generation. What do you think is happening? Is this just about security? Is this part of the global trend of nationalism that we’re seeing take place in a lot of countries? How does somebody like Ben Gvir—who would have been booed out of the Knesset 40 years ago—get such a large percentage of the vote?
EO: Ignoring the fact that Israel is inhabited by 20% non-Jews who are entitled to be citizens with full rights in the State of Israel is a moral mistake of significant proportions. They are part of the State of Israel and they should be considered as equal partners to everything that happens in the State. No one denies that Israel is a Jewish state. Even the leader of the Islamic party, which was part of the last coalition, Mansour Abbas, said that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. He doesn’t want to question the natural definition of what Israel is all about.
The truth is more complex. Everyone talks about the support for Netanyahu, but he was actually the least supported Likud Prime Minister in terms of public opinion of our country. Menachem Begin received 43 mandates in 1977, that’s 11 more than Netanyahu has now. Begin in 1981 received 48, Yitzchak Shamir in different elections received 42 and 43 mandates, which is still 10 and 11 more than Bibi has now. Ariel Sharon in 2003 received 38 mandates. So let’s put things in perspective: Bibi is the least supported leader of Likud in history.
We then need to ask what has Netanyahu made of the Likud that he represents? Menachem Begin’s Likud was very much in favor of Greater Israel and having all of Israel and a united Jerusalem. But, Begin was a person of historic proportions and of moral convictions. He believed in the equality of people, Jews and non-Jews. He was against the martial government in Israel before the 67’ War, when the Labour Party of Ben Gurion imposed it.
That does not contradict the fact that he was in favor of a greater Israel, but he believed in the equality of non-Jews. Ultimately, when he became prime minister, he understood that what he hoped for turned out to be impossible. He understood that if he tried to realize the dreams of a greater Israel it would be at the expense of the basic moral rights of other people and he refrained from doing it as he pulled out from all of Sinai. He was definitely as committed to maintaining these borders as Netanyahu. The same goes for Ariel Sharon.
So great leadership is measured not only by the ability to spit out all kinds of slogans, sometimes shallow and simplistic, but the ability to change what used to be your position in view of what appears to you at a time that you hold the ultimate responsibility regarding how to act. This is the greatest manifestation of leadership. Begin showed this when he made the agreement with Egypt to make peace, which was a historic turning point in the life of the State of Israel. This is what Sharon did when he pulled out of Gaza, because he knew that just continuing to stay in Gaza would not bring any good to people.
DL: There is sort of an irony that most of the land for peace swaps that Israel has done have been orchestrated by leaders from the ideological camp that stressed the need for a greater Israel, but also maintained strong ethical concerns.
Let’s go back to the recent Israeli election results. All signs are pointing to this next government in Israel being the most right-wing both politically and religiously in Israeli history. Why is Israeli society all of a sudden looking upon people like Itamar Ben Gvir as a worthwhile option to vote for when that same person 30 or 40 years ago would have probably received maybe one mandate in the Knesset?
EO: When we look at the overall outcome, like the United States, our country is divided into two, more or less, equal blocks. The margin of victory of the block of Netanyahu is only 5000 votes or 6000 more votes. The division of the attitudes of the population of Israel remains, more or less, the same (50% against annexation vs. 50% for it). The opinions even within the right-bloc are also different in substance. The ultra-Orthodox parties are now part of the bloc of Netanyahu, but the ultra-Orthodox parties are not in favor of annexation and not in favor of the settlements. They don’t settle in the territories and they constitute the same size as Ben Gvir. So, if you take them into account the majority of the people of Israel are against these slogans and measures such as expelling the Arabs.
The picture which may surface as a result of the last election does not really represent an accurate division of the opinions of Israelis with regard to the territories, to settlements, to annexation, and so on. It may ultimately be the political outcome because of the makeup of the coalition, but it doesn’t really represent the basic principles that these parties represent.
DL: What might you say to an American Jewish audience who are deeply supportive of Israel, but are seeing what’s happening in Israel in terms of its rightward tilt and social policies, and becoming increasingly troubled?
EO: First of all, I would say that our community is not more divided than America. We have the same internal debates between liberal and conservative and Orthodox and less traditional forms of Judaism. The Jewish community in America reflects a similar diversity as the community in Israel.
What I think is of greater significance is the fact that Israel is becoming increasingly identified with immoral values in the eyes of the world. In the eyes of the UN we are occupiers. This means that we are denying the fundamental rights of another people—not giving them the life that they deserve—and this will continue to damage the image of the state of Israel. I’m afraid this will also detract many of the young Jews who are committed to the wellbeing of Israel, but are not prepared to commit to the violation of human rights, which are identified today with the way that Israel conducts itself. This is something that the leadership of Israel today should be aware of. We need to ask ourselves, what will make the difference for us? Another few acres of land or a different way of life that recognizes the rights of people, that refrains from occupying people, and that will become much more tolerant of different views and ways of life. Things that will bring greater happiness to a greater number of people.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is the Senior Jewish Educator of OC Hillel, a Rabbi at Temple Beth Tikvah, an adjunct professor at UC Irvine, and a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.