Ehud Olmert was the prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009. He directly precedes the long reign of Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli politics. A former member of Likud, he left the party together with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima in 2005. The years 2006 to 2009 were pivotal, giving shape to many of the issues still being grappled with today. Israel pulled out from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a decision made by Sharon that is often presented as Olmert’s handiwork. Hamas took over the Strip in 2007. Israel bombed and invaded Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 in Operation Cast Lead, near the end of Olmert’s tenure. The last significant negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority took place from 2007 until March 2009, which is when Olmert left office under investigation for corruption and bribery. (He eventually served 16 months of a 27-month prison sentence, during which he wrote his memoir Searching for Peace.)
In a fiery interview on 25 January, Olmert, now 78, said the time to stop the war in Gaza had come and that Netanyahu’s political career is “history”. I was not able to find any evidence for his claims that 10,000 Hamas fighters have been killed or that international aid entering Gaza goes directly to Hamas. At the end of our interview I asked him who the next Prime Minister of Israel will be. He responded by quoting what the famous Israeli writer Amos Oz once told him: “The next prime minister of Israel is here. He’s amongst us. He doesn’t know yet that he will be prime minister. We don’t know yet that he will be prime minister but he will.”
Bruno Maçães: You stopped Operation Cast Lead, the conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2008-2009, after three weeks. So I guess the first question for you is: Is this the right time to stop this Gaza war? Is this the right time to have a negotiated end?
Ehud Olmert: Yes, I think that we have reached the point. But we can say that we won this war. We have destroyed a large part of the military capacity of Hamas. We destroyed the infrastructure, most of the installations of Hamas across Gaza. We destroyed many of the tunnels and we killed over 10,000 of the fighters, which is an incredible number of people for an organisation which is not a state army. And look, they [no longer] shoot missiles [at Israel]— except for one here, one there — because they don’t have them anymore. I think that this is the time, unless there’s someone who wants to carry on this war forever.
Number one: we have given them a blow that will be remembered. It will be felt by Hamas for a very long time. Number two: our top priority is to bring back the hostages. And we are coming close to a point where if we don’t do it now, we may not have a living hostage [left]. We will get coffins, not living human beings. If you put everything in balance — the top priority of bringing back the hostages, the very significant blow to the military capacity of Hamas, and also the possible ramifications in international public opinion [turning against Israel] — [then] I think that this is the time to stop. [We need] a deal for the return of the hostages, which will force us possibly to leave Gaza, and we [must] convince the international community, the Americans and the Europeans, to have an international intervention force in Gaza for an interim period. Not forever, of course, but for an interim period of time that will prepare Gaza for the eventual takeover by the Palestinians.
BM: Your opinion is that Israel should leave Gaza after the war ends?
EO: Remember the war in Lebanon, not in 2006, but the original war in Lebanon in 1982? We stayed in Lebanon 18 years. The actual war was concluded after maybe two, three months. And then we stayed 18 years. And we lost hundreds of soldiers for nothing. That’s the kind of thing that will happen in Gaza. People forget that between the year 2000 and 2005, when we made the disengagement from Gaza, we lost more soldiers and civilians in Gaza than from 2005 to 2023 up until 7 October.
We now have to allow an international intervention force to come, in order to take the responsibility for keeping Gaza quiet, hopefully, and also to try to rebuild Gaza. Gaza is not ours. Gaza belongs to the Palestinians. So the Palestinians will have to take over there. Who the Palestinians will be, that is something that we are interested in. We don’t want Hamas to be there. I believe that we can prepare Gaza for the eventual takeover by the Palestinian Authority.
BM: What do you think of these statements from Israeli leaders that the best solution for Israel would be a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza?
EO: Totally unacceptable. It will never happen. This is crazy. This is an opinion which is voiced by the Messianic extreme fascist groups of [Israeli ministers Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [Bezalel] Smotrich. This is total insanity and it will never happen. If one Palestinian will be pushed out of Gaza into Sinai, we will lose the peace relations with Egypt.
BM: Let me ask you about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. You know him very well. Like many others, I thought after 7 October that he would not last long. He oversaw a security failure, unprecedented in Israeli history. It’s now almost February 2024 and he’s still in power.
EO: Netanyahu is history. Trust me. I said it from day one, it takes time, but he will be thrown out in disgrace. I hope and I pray that it will not be violent. I don’t rule it out because the amount of rage, which is building up in the minds and hearts of people in Israel, is unbelievable. People are sick and tired of this distorted person. I mean, there has never been anything similar in the history of the state of Israel. And he’s held responsible, by the majority of Israelis, for causing [7 October], for developing the circumstances that brought about this complete failure. [He had] the idea that you can ignore the Palestinian issue — that there are no Palestinians, no Palestinian state, no Palestinian authority. [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar, the guy he now calls Nazi, is the guy that he freed from jail. The top leadership of Hamas that perpetrated all these atrocities against the state of Israel — [Netanyahu] released them. I supported our offensive in Gaza as everyone else [in Israel did]. How long it should be, how vast it should be, how devastating it should be, vis a vis Gaza and the civilian population is a different issue.
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BM: Are you critical of the way the war has been conducted? Are you critical of the impact on civilians and on civilian infrastructure and the lack of humanitarian aid to Gaza? And of course, it has had extremely high costs for Israel.
EO: I can only say that I am sad for everyone. When someone says to me, ‘you killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians’ — I don’t know how many were killed. I can say that one is too many. But to be honest with you, I don’t know that there is a way to have conducted this military operation without causing this outcome.
I’m really sorry for it. It’s not something that I take lightly. It’s not something that the Israelis ever wanted. I mean, to the extent that we could, we showed sensitivity to the possible ramifications in terms of humanitarian suffering. But I admit that there is humanitarian suffering. We have allowed the humanitarian supplies coming in, but there is a debate about it in Israel. Not everyone agrees to it and there are many who oppose this humanitarian supply because we know that all this humanitarian supply primarily goes to Hamas before it goes to the population. However, what I say is that we have reached the point now where [any] additional military achievements that we can make at this point are already relatively insignificant against the other possible consequences. The International Court of Justice is also an issue, but this is part of the broader issue of international public opinion.
BM: You have been much clearer in this interview asking for an end to the war than the Biden administration. How do you explain that?
EO: For the time being, they are taking all the necessary measures not to make it a public dispute, but to advise the Israeli government through the visits of [officials such as Antony] Blinken and [Lloyd] Austin and the President himself. And in the last call that [Biden and Netanyahu] had [on 19 January], Bibi [walked back previous comments and] said that he may not be against the Palestinian state, which is something that has been forced upon him by Biden. I think that the Americans are starting to lose their patience.
BM: Is “two states for two people” still the endgame for you?
EO: Let’s assume that we are capable of destroying Hamas completely as the Prime Minister spells it out. That we will destroy them all, that all of Gaza will remain in rubble, that every commander will be executed by Israel. Then what? Don’t we still have five million Palestinians? What are we going to do with them? Are we going to control the five million Palestinians forever? Deprive them of basic human rights, of self-determination, of freedom of movement, of freedom of speech, of political rights, of human rights? Is this possible? Is this in the interest of Israel? Are we not going to pay a terrible price that will threaten the foundations of Israel’s existence because the international community will completely dissociate itself from us?
I mean, already now I’m afraid that our status in the international community is worse than what South Africa’s was before [apartheid ended]. Israel is strong militarily, provided we don’t sleep. You know, what happened in October is not a lack of diligence. We were arrogant and we were overconfident to think that [Hamas] would never do what we saw that they were preparing because ‘who are these stinking Palestinians? They are worth nothing’.
And it turned out that they are worth a lot and that they are smart and they are sophisticated and we should have been ready and prepared and alert. We weren’t. And that’s why everything happened. We have to come back to terms with reality.
(See also: “They kill anything that moves”)