Jerusalem – Ma’an – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has confirmed that he is convinced that peace will never be reached in the region, except by a two-state solution, meaning that a Palestinian state should be built side-by-side with Israel.
In an interview with the chief editor of the Palestinian daily ‘Al Quds’ newspaper, Olmert expressed his "readiness to sit with Palestinian leader Abu Mazen" [President Mahmoud Abbas] in order to reach this solution, in spite of difficulties he says he has dealing with Abbas.
Olmert expressed readiness to sit with ministers from the Hamas movement "if Hamas accepts the Quartet’s demands". He refused to give details about Israel’s acceptance of deploying international forces in the Palestinian territories.
He also said that the Palestinians and Israelis can be partners and "build mutual things together". He justified what happened in Beit Hanoun as a "technical error" and expressed his regret over the incident.
He also said that he is ready to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of the Israeli soldier, Corporal Gil’ad Shalit. He added that his talks with the US president will discuss the situation in the region. He also spoke about the war with Hezbollah, and he called for the Syrian president to specify his position regarding peace, and to make a declaration over his alleged support of Iran and Hezbollah.
The following is part of his interview with the paper:
Q: We would like to ask you about your position in regards to the creation of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel.
A: First of all, I would like to apologize for the tragedy of Beit Hanoun. I want the Palestinians to know that this is not our policy; it is not our goal to harm Palestinians or cause such tragedies to innocent people. It is a complicated situation, as when there are people in Ashkelon suffering from the Qassam projectiles, Israel should defend itself. We are not occupying the Strip or any part of it. In Beit Hanoun, a technical error occurred. I have checked that, and received answers from the army. They said that there was a technical error, which is no matter. I have said that I am sorry for that. I feel very sorry about the tragedy there and I hope that the Palestinians will accept my condolences. I have sent a letter to Mr Abbas in this regard.
To be honest, when I started political work, I did not have a vision. but since I began work, I have changed a lot of my ideas and what I am saying today, I did not say in the past. I have reached the conclusion that there will be no peace in this region of the world except by two states living side-by-side, meaning that there should be a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel and that cannot happen except if Israel lives in peace and with no terror. This is the vision of Bush and mine also, and I am committed to work on that until we accomplish it. I think this can be achieved while we are still alive.
Q: Why dont you take this opportunity and sit with [Syrian President] Assad and Abu Mazen to start achieving peace?
A: We should separate the two, as Assad is one story and Abu Mazen is another story. They are different personalities, have different agendas, and there are also different issues. I would like to say that I agree with Abbas on everything, but, I can’t say that as he is a very difficult negotiator. You should know that when we sit at the table, we will fight for the issues more than we agree on these issues. But I trust him when he says he is against violence and that he wants to solve the issues that are suspended with Israel in a civilized way.
I would like to say something. Before the 25th of June when [Corporal] Shalit was abducted, I met with [Egyptian president] Mubarak and [Jordanian monarch] Abdullah the II. My message to Abbas through them and through the French president, and UK Prime Minister Blair, and [German chancellor] Angela Merkel was, when I completed the preparations for a meeting together. This incident changed everything. Can I release prisoners before Shalit is released? I give you my word of honour, and you are recording now what I am saying: tell Hamas that it is enough for them and for the extremists and for those who are keeping your sons in the jails because they are not ready to release Shalit, in spite of the fact that we are not in Gaza and are not occupying one inch of it.
It is easy and simple. I am ready to sit with Abu Mazen at any time. Dont misunderstand me, dealing with him is more difficult than dealing with Khalid Mash’al, as the latter says that even if Israel withdraws from the 1967 lands – and that is what we are not going to do – Mash’al says that "we will not recognize Israel" and "we will not sign an agreement with Israel." So it is easy to deal with him as we know his opinion. Abu Mazen is a different person. He is smart, serious and constructive.
Q: But it is said that Abbas has no power behind him and that he cannot move.
A: You know that it is difficult for me to solve the Israelis’ problems and it is not my duty to solve the Palestinians’ problems. But I tell them: say no to the extremists. They are your enemies; they are destroying any chance for a settlement between you and us. And I say again that I am ready to release prisoners. But dont think I am going to do that while Shalit is still abducted by Hamas men. Let us sit and talk as human beings.
Q: This position of yours weakens the position of Abbas, especially in the shadow of what you are doing in the Gaza Strip.
A: Whether I do what I am doing now or not, the result is bad. If I let the extremists win, Abbas will be weakened. And if I fight them, civilians will be the victims. What should I do? I want to stop terror. You can argue with me, but you can’t argue that it was me who convinced Sharon to evacuate the Gaza Strip. Why are they still launching projectiles? What do they have in their minds?
Q: What about the Philadelphi corridor? [the tiny strip between the Gaza Strip and Egypt]
A: We have left it, but they are still launching projectiles. I said that we should do something. I expect from the Palestinians, and I am not a Palestinian. I reached the conclusion that says: why do the Palestinian children in Jerusalem have decent classrooms? I built the most luxurious schools in Beit Hanina. I can be a partner because I do care for the Palestinians and because I know that if they have a decent life, they might hold better feelings towards us. We can make hard concessions for peace, and be very flexible, and this pushes me to call for Abu Mazen to carry his responsibilities. I can’t help you and I dont want to do so. That is not my job. And I dont want him to help me. However, put your home in order first, stop these extremists, these are the enemies of peace. If he does this, he will find me as the best partner in the world and I will bring the whole world with me, the US and Europe.
Q: He knows that, but he fears civil war. That is the main issue for him.
A: I look at the issue as an Israeli, if he can’t put an end to the extremists, why should we make understandings with him?
There is another point I would like to say. I am ready to sit with the Palestinian government as long as they are committed to peace, but not with a government who receives its orders from Damascus.
Q: Do you accept international monitors in the territories, especially in Gaza?
A: I dont want to get into details, but we withdrew from there, Gaza is not in my hands.
Q: Are you satisfied with the Egyptians now?
A: I respect the Egyptian president. They can do a better job, but they are also able to do a worse job. So, I am not happy, but I want them there and to make their work better.
Q: What about your convergence plan?
A: It is not a goal. It is a mechanism which may lead to carry out the Bush vision. To establish the Palestinian state in the West Bank, so a Palestinian can travel from Hebron to Jenin without facing any foreigners, including the Israelis. There will be no military barriers. We were negotiating for this over the past few years, and you can have this state faster than you may imagine. But dont terrorize us, as this is what we are not going to accept. Why are we spending our efforts in fighting? We can make better use of these energies. We can build something for both of us. We can work together, and I am ready to help every time in building industrial areas on the borders with you. We did that with both Jordan and Egypt.
Q: What about [a military] withdrawal from the West Bank to the 1967 borders? Is there a plan for Jerusalem?
A: The issue of east Jerusalem isn’t the sole difficulty we have to solve. Time will come to negotiate over that appropriately. You are familiar with my commitment and love of Jerusalem. I have never neglected the Muslim needs and sentimentalities towards the holy city and will never do. Al-Aqsa mosque (Temple Mount), as I believe, will always be open to all believers for ever. I believe in complete tolerance, cooperation and respect for all beliefs and religions as part of our lives. Nobody will displace the Palestinians from their residential places or ignore their legal religious heritage.
The suitable political settlement will eventually be reached, but let’s begin at an easy point. The average Israeli says: While you discuss Jerusalem, look what you have done in Gaza? Do you still talk about Jerusalem after what followed the withdrawal from Gaza? I say: if Gaza was tranquil, and if the message there were different, that would have a great influence on Israeli public opinion and would be unprecedented. This is the main issue.
Q: Given that the military operation in Gaza has failed to stop the "Qassams" [homemade projectiles fired from the Gaza Strip at bordering Israeli towns], why do you persist and what alternative do you have?
A: The best situation for us, and for the Palestinian majority who care for peace, is to work together on ending the Qassam launching. When we invaded Beit Hanoun and Jabalia, we didn’t claim that we would end all the Qassam launching, we thought we could reduce them through hindering the movement of the launchers. Palestinians have to ask themselves: While we [Israel] were far from Gaza [after disengagement], why did they oblige us to go back and kill 300 Palestinians since the beginning of the Summer?
Q: Do you intend to take measures in the future for improving the situation in Gaza?
A: I am ready, willing, worried and loaded with numerous ideas that can make a perceivable change in Palestinian-Israeli relations. You have to release [Corporal] Gil’ad Shalit, accept the conditions of the international community and cease violence, and I will move forward immediately without delay.
Q: So, Shalit must be released first and then the Palestinian detainees will be. Won’t there be simultaneity in the actions?
A: I will avoid details. I was willing to release hundreds of Palestinians, before the abduction of Shalit, just to give a gesture of respect to the feelings of the Palestinians, and to the intention to have serious and true dialogue. Given that, I am ready to release them after the kidnapping of Shalit has ended, and I have given my word to President Mubarak [of Egypt], who is a good and loyal friend. He has frequently called me to ask about that and I said that I gave my word, then Shalit was kidnapped. Upon his request, I agreed to exchange prisoners, but it was Hamas who paralyzed the issue.
Q: What is your position regarding the Palestinian unity government?
A: If Hamas accepts the decisions of the Quartet, I will confer with them. I don’t have to investigate the past of the ministers before I meet with them. Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas], for example, was different in the past. Once he belonged to what we used to classify as a terrorist organization, however he has adopted new ideologies to which he is loyal. I am ready to sit with him, despite his stiffness in negotiations.
Q: The mass media has referred to an war, expected next year, between Israel on one side and Syria and Hezbollah on the other. Are you optimistic for the future?
A: I will be objective in this issue. I am not in the mood of humiliating or undermining Nasrallah, but believe me, he has lost the appetite to fight Israel, regardless of what the media said. He thought that by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing eight more, I would welcome him for dialogue. He confessed that he never expected the Israeli reaction, which would have prevented him from undertaking that operation, had he expected just 1% of that reaction.
As for [Syrian President] Al-Assad, he has to select between allying with the evil party, which will exclude him from being our partner, or being different, and then he will be stunned by our reaction.
Q: There was a plan to reunite Palestinian families, which ceased during Sharon’s term of office in 2002. Is it possible to reconsider the plan, which would be beneficial for all West Bank and east Jerusalem families?
A: To be honest, I have not dealt with that issue lately, but I will check up about it.
Q: What do you expect from your trip to the United States?
A: To start with, I am a close friend to the American president George Bush. I consider him one of the greatest leaders in the world, with who we share a complementary vision and deep commitment to basic values. Israel has close relations with the United States. We’ll review the situation in the region and I will go to meet the Council of the Jewish American Federation in Los Angeles.
Q: Do you believe what happened in Beit Hanoun will affect your visit?
A: I think that issue can’t be neglected. It was a tragedy in which everybody was interested. My heart was broken. I hope I could go to the families to embrace them and express my feelings. I appreciate, if these families go to visit Jewish families, victims of Palestinian violence, so as to let them know how things started and how we were forced to respond.
Ehud Olmert was speaking to Al Quds newspaper www.alquds.com