Ehud Olmert, former Prime Minister of Israel, discussed his views on the security situation Israel faces and how that shapes prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
On June 4, the Wilson Center hosted a Director’s Forum, “The View from Israel: A Conversation with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.” Aaron David Miller, Vice President for New Initiatives at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Jane Harman, President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center, provided introductory remarks.
Harman introduced Olmert, praising his efforts to pursue Middle East peace. “I, for one, remain bullish” on a negotiated settlement, she said, hoping that recent efforts involving Secretary of State John Kerry will help “the Middle East region become an economic powerhouse” with Israel as a key partner.
Olmert opened his remarks by stating that this is “the last—but also the best—time we have to make peace.” He noted that Israel has never been “in better security shape than we are now,” and, thus, is more flexible to negotiate. Israel’s traditional enemies are presenting “smaller and more manageable” dangers in the wake of the Arab uprisings; Syria in particular “is not a strategic threat on the state of Israel” and does not have the resources or power to threaten Israel “for the foreseeable future.” An agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, if signed, might even have a quieting effect on Syria’s unrest. Similarly, despite the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood among Egyptian leadership, Egypt also will not cross security lines, Olmert believed. Rather, Egypt is more concerned with finding ways to feed its people than in “jeopardizing security” and initiating a “military disaster” by attacking Israel.
However, Olmert said, there is “one danger, Iran,” not just to Israel and the peace process but the rest of the region. As such, Israel must take measures to prevent Iranian nuclear capability. Olmert called on U.S. officials for leadership in addressing the Iranian threat; he noted that President Obama probably does not want to leave office with the legacy of a nuclear Iran. An Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he opined, would not resolve the Iranian issue, but it could create a better atmosphere for negotiation by providing a stronger, united front of moderate Arab countries working with other powers to oppose Iran.
In a discussion with Miller, Olmert addressed the history of his meetings while prime minister with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom he called “a partner for peace.” All topics were “on the table”; for instance, regarding Abbas’ unwillingness to have Israeli forces within an independent Palestine, Olmert asserted, “My peace plan does not include any military presence.” He also discussed his concern with the Palestinian refugee issue, drawing a parallel to the Jewish experience in Europe and saying, “the refugee issue ought to be dealt with and resolved.” Olmert noted that Palestinian negotiators “never said no” to his plan despite logistical issues; there was room for fine-tuning, but the “shape of the deal” was acceptable to both sides. Pointing out that the loss of power in the Knesset by Netanyahu and Lieberman represents “a stunning defeat for their policy,” he asked that his peace plan be “brought back to center stage.” He acknowledged that he has made mistakes in the past, but that if both Israelis and Palestinians can make clear their support for the peace process—difficult, given the intense domestic pressures both parties face—an internationally popular deal can be reached. Olmert concluded by reiterating that Abbas is “a partner for peace,” and asked President Obama to get more personally involved in the process, which would be in America’s own national interests: “the key to changing the Middle East … is an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program