Photo Credit: Perry Bindelglass
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks to a crowd in Manhattan for The Jerusalem Post Conference on September 12.

Former PM Also Says Kanye West Should Be Boycotted

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went from negotiating a possible historic peace deal with Palestinian leadership to negotiating being able to watch TV sports in prison. He bluntly discusses this and a variety of issues in his riveting book, Searching For Peace: A Memoir of Israel.


In a phone interview with The Jewish Press, Olmert spoke about how he dealt with the emotional trauma of being the first prime minister to be convicted (on a bribery charge stemming from events before he was prime minister), and about the upcoming election, Iran, and his heralded decision to strike the Syrian nuclear facility.

While many men falling from grace might be depressed or filled with rage, Olmert was able to write the majority of his book in jail and he said he knew how to find strength, then and now.

“I knew the conviction was completely unfair and unjust and knowing the truth gave me power,” Olmert said. “When I walk in the street and I see the number of people that want to take a photo with me and thank me for what I did for the State of Israel and the degree of respect I receive, it balances out the pain I received from being unjustly convicted.”


Israeli Elections

For the fifth time in three years, Israelis will go to the polls on November 1. Despite an indictment against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has denied all charges against him), some say it is not out of the question that Bibi could wind up once again leading the government. Olmert and Netanyahu are bitter rivals.

Olmert said he is not especially a fan of any candidate who is running. He said he doesn’t expect Netanyahu to win, but there are few certainties in life.

“One must be completely dumb not to be concerned,” Olmert said. “If you ask me my assessment, at this point I don’t think Netanyahu will have enough votes to form a government and it is better for Israel that he will be as far away as possible.”

He said the only small possibility for Netanyahu to win would be if he joined with “the extreme right wing.”


The Attack on Syria’s Nuclear Facility

Top officials warned President George W. Bush that Olmert “is trying to push America into a war with The Middle East,” Olmert said. He added that he later found out from books published on the subject that former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Bush to tell him (Olmert) that any action against Syria on Israel’s part would jeopardize Israel’s entire relationship with America. While Bush never said this to Olmert, he says, Bush made it clear the U.S. only favored diplomatic moves, not military action.

“It was quite clear that I could do it (attack) without even sharing anything with the American president because this was a direct threat to the very existence of the State of Israel near our borders,” Olmert said. There was no option not to do it. This is not something that may have interfered with American interests that would have justified an intervention to prevent it. I called the president and suggested that the Americans would consider doing it because I thought it would be helpful to create a certain fear in Iran that America doesn’t just talk or warn or threat[en] those who might develop nuclear capacity, they act…”

Ultimately, Olmert ordered Israeli pilots to attack, and the mission was a resounding success. There was no war as a result, and he said Bush accepted Olmert’s decision “in a dignified manner.”


Will Putin Go Nuclear? Should Israel Provide Weapons to Ukraine?

Olmert has met Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and while nobody has a crystal ball, asked what he thinks will happen, Olmert said he thinks the disaster people fear will be averted.

“Putin is not likely to use nuclear weapons,” Olmert said. “If he will use tactical nuclear weapons, it will not be the outcome of Israel providing Ukraine with defensive or offensive measures. America provides them with that. If something may trigger Putin to act in a more aggressive manner . . . it would be deep American and European involvement. The question of Israel is different. I don’t think we can ignore the desperate situation that Ukraine is stuck in. Had we been in a similar situation, we would have been very upset without potential friends if they said, ‘Well, you know, if we help you, the other side might be aggressive and very upset and might act violent against us.’ This was always the excuse that others made when they didn’t want to help Israel. So, do we have to be like those who we blamed for neglecting us when we were in trouble? Or should we be more active in supporting those who deserve to be supported?”


They Murdered Rabin for Far Less

Olmert said former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice wrote in her book of his support for peace and noted that “they murdered Rabin for far less.” Asked if he feared for his life if he made a controversial peace deal, he said the answer was easy. He also said “a prominent guy” told him he was putting his life in danger.

“I was never afraid of being assassinated,” Olmert said. “I was never afraid no matter where I was, even with (Ariel) Sharon in the ’73 war with shells and bombing, when the Egyptians were firing at us, I was never afraid of being killed or assassinated.”

He said he did battle against a “political assassination” with huge funding that he said ultimately succeeded.


Why Should Anyone Believe Mahmoud Abbas Will Make a Peace Deal?

While Prime Minister Yair Lapid and others can speak of a two-state solution, there has been little reported movement regarding any negotiations. Olmert notes in his book that he gave Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas what is likely the best offer he might have seen and it was not accepted. The conventional wisdom is that with Hamas in power, and even in the Palestinian Authority, there is little reason for hope. Is there any evidence for one to think Abbas would be open to any peace deal?

“Abbas recognizes now the enormous mistake he made when he declined to sign,” Olmert said. Had a similar plan been offered to him now, I think he would respond differently. I hope so … Do Israelis want peace? Are we prepared to pay the price that is needed to try to bring the other side so close that it will become inevitable? I’m not so certain about it … I don’t think there has been any effort in the last 12 years to come close to negotiating with the Palestinians. Making peace is not a favor to Palestinians. Making peace is in the foremost interest in the State of Israel…It is essential to the future of the State of Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state to separate from the Palestinians and this is the only way to do it.”


Second Lebanon War and a New Lebanon Deal to Drill for Gas

In the eighth chapter of Olmert’s book, “The Truth about the Second Lebanon War,” he writes that while the decision to go to war was seen by some as “an angry overreaction to the second abduction of IDF soldiers in three weeks,” that was not the case. He also writes that for those who say it was a failure because the soldiers weren’t returned, “we knew we wouldn’t be able to take back the POWs through a military operation, but it was right to demand it anyway.” He adds that “we needed to retaliate immediately.”

Olmert said, “Nasrallah is living in a bunker – he knows what will be the price” of another aggressive move, and he said there has been relative peace in the last decade and a half.

As to the drafts of a maritime new deal with Lebanon involving rights to drill for oil in the sea, Olmert said that while Netanyahu has claimed Israel caved due to pressure from Hezbollah, it is a mutually beneficial deal.

“I don’t think the Israeli government was afraid,” Olmert said. “We prefer a compromise with Lebanon where Lebanon will gain some profits and it will take them years to create it because [in] the section of the sea they claim, they still didn’t find gas.”


What About Comments by the Rapper Formerly Kanye West?

The rapper and entrepreneur threatened Jews in an online post and has done a series of interviews where he includes antisemitic tropes such as the claim that the Black voice is owned by Jews, Jews control the media, and Jews have business secrets and made money by being divorce lawyers for Christians.

“I think he should be boycotted,” Olmert said. “The music community and the Hollywood community should boycott him completely. He is a stinking antisemite.”


The Abraham Accords

“I’m very happy about the Abraham Accords, initiated by (UAE President) Mohammed bin Zayed,” Olmert said. “The one that was helpful to accomplish it was Jared Kushner. I hold him in the highest esteem for what he has done. It was very important. The Israeli government had to make major concessions as part of this agreement.”

Olmert said that 15 years prior, he’d been in touch with the UAE laying groundwork, but he said he would not want to take any credit away from the Trump administration, bin Zayed, “and also from the government of Israel at the time, including Netanyahu.”


And Other Matters . . .

On Jews being assaulted in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Los Angeles for being Jewish: “Jews have suffered from violence in every part of the world,” Olmert said. “When political rhetoric gets extreme there is violence. We have to be united to defend ourselves and law enforcement in America must be strong enough to protect anyone from potential antisemites.”

Did he expect to be sued by Netanyahu after calling him “mentally ill?” It is extremely rare and bizarre for a former prime minister to sue another. But the logic behind Netanyahu’s decision to sue would be that the public might believe that since Olmert was prime minister, he was privy to some documents the public hadn’t seen. (Some believe this action of Olmert was uncalled for.)

“I expected it might happen,” Olmert said of the lawsuit. “But people have called him a crook and a thief and he never sued anyone. I think he was under some pressure from family members to sue me. I think it caused damage to his reputation.”

On Iran and on the 2000 documentary about Olmert’s career: ‘There are many different ways to deal with the Iranian threat,” he said. “I think that a deal now considered can be useful and, in my mind, recommended. I don’t know that Iran decided yet, they will build an atomic bomb.

Asked if he trusted Iran would honor any deal, he said: “The one thing I can tell you is that Israel will do whatever it is in her power to prevent Iran from having (weaponized) nuclear power. I know quite a few ways that we can do it, but quite honestly, I’m not going to share it with you.”

Olmert, who had a lengthy career and was the mayor of Jerusalem, was featured in the 2000 documentary “Honorable Men: The Rise and Fall of Ehud Olmert” which examined his accomplishments as well as his trial and conviction. What did Olmert think of the documentary?

“It’s a movie,” he said. “The good parts were good. That bad parts were not.”


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Alan has written for many papers, including The Jewish Week, The Journal News, The New York Post, Tablet and others.