Ehud Olmert to Al Majalla: Netanyahu-led government wants Armageddon and endless occupation

The former Israeli prime minister on the aimless Gaza war, the dangers posed by the far-right, and why he believes Benjamin Netanyahu should be fired as soon as possible.

Lina Jaradat/Majalla

Ehud Olmert to Al Majalla: Netanyahu-led government wants Armageddon and endless occupation

A former Israeli leader who was close to brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Ehud Olmert has a lot to say.

Speaking to Al Majalla in his office, Olmert talks about the aftermath of the 7 October attacks, Israel’s declaration of war, the extreme danger posed by the government’s far-right ministers, the aimless war in Gaza, and the lack of any political horizon for the future generations.

“What (Itamar) Ben Gvir and (Bezalel) Smotritch have in mind is Armageddon,” he says, referring respectively to the ministers of national security and finance.

A vocal critic of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, Olmert believes that the incumbent premier has leapt into the dark and that his allies are shaking the Middle East to its foundations.

“He (Netanyahu) needs to be fired as soon as possible. We need to know what the endgame is for this war and what the vision is that Israel may have about the future.”

Olmert, who served as prime minister of Israel from 2006-09, says the Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank need a “political horizon”, even though the 7 October attacks have made it harder for Israelis to accept a Palestinian state.

“We have to rebuild the idea because we don’t want this young generation, which includes my grandchildren, to think that there can only be a future of wars.”

Here is the transcript in full:

Is Gaza the ultimate goal of this Israeli government? I mean, is Israel doing what it’s doing now for several months just to destroy Hamas?

I wish I could tell you what the Israeli government’s ultimate goal is. I don’t know. The real problem is that the government doesn’t know!

The war started as a natural, spontaneous, inevitable reaction to the terrible massacre on 7 October against Israeli civilians. You can argue about the shape of the reaction, the extent of it, and the intensity of it.

There can be different opinions, but I doubt that any reasonable person in the world does not understand what caused Israel to react. Israelis lost their lives in the most brutal manner. I mean, that cannot be forgotten and will not be forgiven. So, we had to react.

But what is the endgame? What is Israel's vision for the future? I entirely subscribe, by the way, to the desire and wish to destroy the military power of Hamas so they cannot dominate Gaza any further. Still, we need to provide a political reason, and this government is unable and unwilling to do so.

They may have a broader goal. I mean, why are they so determined to continue with a war whose main objective proved to be unrealistic?

Because it’s a cliché now that Hamas is an ideology. You might be able to destroy Hamas militarily, but you won’t destroy Hamas as an ideology...

There are two different ways to interpret it.

One is to say that we need to destroy the commanders of Hamas, and that’s why we need to continue for as long as it takes. The existence of a Jihadist military power such as Hamas will cause a repetition of what we experienced, and this is not something that we can afford.

The other way is to answer the question: For how long? How much longer do you need to eradicate the military power of Hamas and then do something that will create a different process?

The Israeli government doesn’t have an answer to this because there can be no answer because you can’t completely destroy Hamas because it is, as you correctly say, an idea, an ideology.

There will always be younger Palestinians who shoot and terrorise unless there is a political direction or strategy to offer the 6-7 million Palestinians a political horizon of some sort that will help create new momentum. This is what the Israeli government is not prepared to do.

Nor are the Palestinians, by the way. They complain, and they have good reason to, because of the terrible and miserable disaster that they are suffering now as a result of the Israeli counter-offensive, but they cannot deny that this began with them on 7 October.

Those who started it knew there would be a real reaction, that Palestinians would suffer from it, and that many would be killed as a result. So, it’s more complex than just looking for excuses to attack the Israeli counter-offensive without assuming any kind of responsibility for starting it.

While we had to retaliate, respond, and take countermeasures, we also had to provide a political horizon that could become the basis of a positive development. But we don’t. We don’t because the Prime Minister of Israel doesn’t want a political solution... I have this political war with him because of this.

Read more: Jibril Rajoub: The world can no longer ignore Palestine

Unfortunately, this is the almost inevitable interpretation of what he said. He needs to be fired as soon as possible for this and other reasons.

I am against the Israeli government because it doesn’t want to find a solution. I would have listened had they come up with a political solution that does not imply endless occupation of the territories.

If they had a solution—let’s say, for instance, that the West Bank is to be governed by an Arab consortium of Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis, Emiratis, and Bahrain, with Israel no longer the occupier—I may disagree, but at least I’d listen to it because it at least changes what we’ve practised for 55 years. What Netanyahu says means only one thing: occupation forever.

Denying the Palestinians the right to self-determination, limiting their freedom of movement, their freedom of speech, their right to participate in elections or exercise their political rights. I disagree with this. I’m against it. I’ll fight against it with all my power, with all the people I can mobilise to oppose it.

Because we don’t want to occupy the Palestinians. We want security and the ability to defend ourselves indefinitely, but we don’t want to occupy them.

We want them to enjoy their rights as we enjoy ours. So perhaps, after a long process, we will eventually learn to live alongside one another with peace and respect.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hold a briefing on President Donald Trump's Mideast plan on February 11, 2020 in New York

So, a Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only solution?

In my mind. But, as I say, if someone can come up with a solution that’s acceptable to Palestinians and moderate Arabs that ends Israel’s occupation, I’m ready to listen. I don’t think it’s possible.

In my mind, there can be only one solution: a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel; the complete control by Israel of our security, with some measure undertaken jointly and in cooperation, to build understanding and trust between us. But no occupation.

In Israel, speaking to people on the streets and monitoring social media, there is a growing trend of secular Israelis who reject the religious ideology of the far-right and of religious Zionism, but they see eye-to-eye with them politically. They have started calling for a Greater Israel, just like Ben Gvir and Smotritch do. Is this alarming to you?

I don’t know how many secular Jews in Israel are now becoming more and more right-wing. What I do know is that Israelis are angry with what the Palestinians did to us on 7 October.

The support that existed among some Israelis for a Palestinian state has diminished. We have to rebuild it, but this will take time. It’s not simple or easy. There are strong emotions over what happened. Israeli parents now have to send their children to Gaza to fight. Hundreds have been killed.

We don't want to occupy the Palestinians. We want security and the ability to defend ourselves indefinitely, but we don't want to occupy them. We want them to enjoy their rights as we enjoy ours.

That said, there is a growing opposition to what Ben Gvir and Smotrich represent. We are not prepared to be judged by the international community based on the visions Ben Gvir and Smotritch offer. They do not represent Israel, the values of Israel, or the basic moral principles that characterise the State of Israel.

Most Israelis will do everything in their power to kick them out of government and bring back the moderates who, even if they disagree with other countries, can still be reasonable, restrained, and capable of dialogue.

In December, I interviewed former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and he said he believed that the idea of a Palestinian state was not dead but that it would now be delayed significantly. Do you agree with this?

I'd say, if Lapid had the guts to say that he supports a Palestinian state, he would have said it explicitly, publicly, openly.

As I said before, the atrocities committed by the Palestinians in October have changed attitudes emotionally. It will take time to reverse and for people to understand that there is no other solution.

Read more: Yair Lapid to Al Majalla: A Palestinian state will be delayed significantly, but the idea not dead

The problem I have with some who pretend to be national leaders is that they lack the courage to express their opinions, even if they may not be as popular as they were a year ago or half a year ago. Sometimes, political leaders must have the courage and take the initiative to do things that might not seem popular but are correct.

How would an Israeli leader today rebuild the idea of a Palestinian state in the minds of many traumatised Israelis?

The ultimate test of leadership, of great leadership, is the ability to say things that are unpopular and may not necessarily correspond to what you promised in the past but are nevertheless the right things to say now. All the Israelis who criticise Netanyahu should have the courage to spell out the alternative, to say in public what they say in private.

Eyal Warsavsky/Majalla

Let's talk about Egypt. Do you think Netanyahu and his allies in the far right want to provoke Egypt into tearing up the historic 1979 Peace Treaty?

Several times in recent months, I have criticised the government and Ben Gvir and Smotritch, saying that what they have in mind is Armageddon. What they want will upset everything and shatter the foundations of stability in the Middle East.

To them, it is reasonable to pay any price if it will help them rid the West Bank of Palestinians and if it will help to annex the territories to become part of the State of Israel.

If you explain to them that what they propose would mean breaking the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and between Israel and Jordan, then ask them if they still want to do it, and they would probably say no. So, that's the problem: they cannot comprehend the ramifications of their terrible policies.

It is our duty, and it is my duty, as an Israeli, to warn of the possible ramifications and to keep repeating them so people understand what Smotritch and Ben Gvir have in mind.

All this talk about strengthening Israel, about love for Israel, about defending Israel's right to exist, and so on, they are actually weakening Israel and threatening the very foundations of Israel's strategic interests by doing what they're doing or saying what they're saying.

Several times in recent months, I have criticised the government and Ben Gvir and Smotritch, saying that what they have in mind is Armageddon. What they want will upset everything and shatter the foundations of stability in the Middle East. 

The most recent estimates by US intelligence say 40-45% of bombs dropped on Gaza in recent months are dumb bombs i.e. not guided, not precise. What does this figure reveal to you?

I'm unfamiliar with this, and I'm not sure anyone can give accurate figures. It led to a terrible humanitarian crisis, with many innocent civilians killed. And, without drawing any comparisons, many innocent Israelis were killed on 7 October, hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot return to their homes because they're threatened.

So, I don't need to agree or disagree with figures about the number of Palestinians affected. For me, if an Israeli bomb kills one single Palestinian baby, that's unacceptable.

I can understand the reaction of the international community looking at what's going on here (in Gaza), feeling this rage, attributing it to the State of Israel. President Biden, Rishi Sunak, Macron, and Schultz all said Israel had the right to respond and defend itself.

They must have understood that in the course of this counter-offensive, there would be civilians killed, just as there were so many Israeli civilians butchered, raped, and beheaded in the most brutal manner.

Read more: If it's abnormal in Jerusalem, it's because 'we are filled with love'

Still, we have to make every possible effort not to harm civilians. At this point, if an Israeli attack on Rafah is going to cause the killing of so many innocent Palestinians, there is a very good argument to hold.

I say again: the additional military advantage of continuing the war at this point is not worth the damage now being done to innocent civilians.

If an Israeli bomb kills a single Palestinian baby, that's unacceptable. I can understand the reaction of the international community.

You support a deal with Hamas, swapping hostages for prisoners. Why, if this deal entails the release of prisoners that Israel considers to be a high-security risk?

Israel is strong. We can deal with Hamas, and we are dealing with Hamas, I think, quite effectively, although I'm very conscious of the price that innocent Palestinians are paying. We've devastated Hamas militarily, almost completely.

So now, if someone offers the hostages, do you take a risk to get them? Yes, you take that risk because we have to bring them back.

They are not soldiers sent by Israel into battle. They could not defend themselves when they were abducted. They are innocent civilians whom we failed to protect and defend. It is incumbent on us to bring them back home at any price, and we will.

A man walks past a giant billboard in Jerusalem featuring portraits of Israelis taken hostage after the 7 October attacks by Hamas

Do you think this war's moral, political, and economic consequences will affect young Israelis and future generations? What kind of Israel do you and political leaders want to leave for the young Israelis?

What they want and what the Israeli government wants are two different things. I can't speak for them. I can only speak for myself.

The failure to defend the residents of southern Israel on 7 October has had an enormous impact on Israelis, but at the same time, it has triggered them to have courage and make sacrifices to reach those who perpetrated these atrocities.

In addition to, or to supplement, the enormous sacrifice made by young Israelis who went into the battlefield to fight, we must offer a political horizon or vision. It will take some time, it will take years, but it will mean moving towards a different reality of living in peace alongside our (Palestinian) neighbours.

So, OK, what our parents promised us (about peace) didn't materialise, and what we promised our children didn't materialise, but it may be what our children are inspired to promise their children that this will be possible.

It is essential. The young generation cannot think that the only future is of wars. There must also be a future of accommodation, compromise, and peace between us and our neighbours.  

font change