"Israel Should Not Be on the Forefront of a War Against Iran"

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with TIME World Editor Romesh Ratnesar for a two-hour interview at Olmert’s home in Jerusalem. Here are excerpts from their discussion.

TIME: Would Israel take military action to stop Iran's nuclear program?

Olmert: As the one who has to take the decision, I can tell you that I genuinely don't think Israel should be on the forefront of this war. I don't know why people think this is first and foremost a war for Israel. It's a problem for every civilized country. Iran is a major threat to the well-being of Europe and America just as much as it is for the state of Israel. I don't think America can tolerate the idea of a leader of nation of 30 million people who can openly speak of the liquidation of another country. And therefore it is incumbent upon America and Europeans to form a strategy and implement it to remove this danger of unconventional weapons in Iran. To assume that Israel would be the first to go into a military confrontation with Iran represents a misunderstanding of this issue.

TIME:How often do you speak to President Bush?

Olmert: I've spoken to him maybe three times since I became Prime Minister. There is a very strong emotional bond between the two of us, every time we speak we both feel it deeply. I know how he feels and he [knows] how I feel. I think it grew out of his first trip to Israel, when I hosted him in Jerusalem. He knows that I like him. I very much depend on the understanding and cooperation of President Bush. The reason I think [disengagement] can be done is because of the trust and understanding we have for each other. In my opinion President Bush will emerge in history as the person who had more courage to change the Middle East than any person before him. I know the war in Iraq is controversial in the States, but for us in the Middle East it has made a great and significant impact. The decision of the President made an enormous impact on the lives of Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians — every country who was the potential target of the aggression of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. The sense of mission that Bush feels about war on terror is of enormous significance. When I think from the perspective of an Israeli and who is the partner, the natural partner who I speak with about fighting terror, it's President Bush.

TIME:You've said that you intend to begin a unilateral withdrawal from some settlements in the West Bank, which goes further than even what Sharon said he would do. Why are you pushing to do this now?

Olmert: I'm not certain that all those who are trying to be the authentic interpreters of Sharon's legacy can say with great accuracy what he would have done. When Arik collapsed, Hamas was not in power and the prospect of possible negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was entirely different. This has changed as a result of Hamas coming to power. To continue the same old rhetoric only because I have to think what would Sharon have done is a mistake. I have to think about what is best to do under present circumstances — what can be done, what ought to be done. If there's one thing Sharon represented it's not so much the old thing than the desire not to sit and do nothing. I'm sure that he would also have changed the way he thinks if he witnessed these developments.

TIME: There's a lot of opposition to the plan from the settler community and their supporters. Are you worried that your plan will split Israel?

Olmert:I believe that inside the population of settlers there is a significant group that understand that the time has come for us to redraw the lines. If we handle it with sufficient sensitivity, I believe that we can avoid unnecessary eruptions of emotional reactions. And the plan is not just about dismantling settlements — it's also aimed at focusing and moving forward to augment the three major blocs of settlements in the West Bank.

TIME: Will the lines in place at the end of it be the political borders of Israel?

Olmert: At least for a period of time. They will be very very close to what may be the final borderlines. The idea is that we will be separated from the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. The whole idea is to separate Israelis from the Palestinians and to allow territorial contiguity for the Palestinians from which they can take the necessary steps to build and develop and independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. I guess if at some point afterward there will be negotiations to finalize everything and in order to reach a comprehensive peace then maybe some adjustments. But the lines I want to draw are very close to the lines that I believe will become the political borders.

TIME: Would you consider going back to negotiations rather than continue with the unilateral strategy? Do you see any prospect for negotiations with Hamas if they moderate their rhetoric?

Olmert: They can't just change their rhetoric They need to change their entire way of life, they need to change entirely their state of mind about Israel's existence. It's so much deeper than rhetoric. To just believe that if Ismail Haniyeh tomorrow starts using different words, that will make the difference? No way. This is a typical fundamentalist, extremist religious movement that does not think in political terms the way we're accustomed to. Therefore I'm not very optimistic they can change overnight. They can change their rhetoric but they can't change substance.

Their inability to accept the existence of two states and their total dedication to an Islamic religious fundamentalist state all across the Middle East to Africa to Asia is still their most dominant driving force. Don't get it wrong, some of them are very sophisticated, well-educated people. But they have a different concept of life.

TIME: Hamas says that if the international community — including the U.S. and Israel — continues to restrict aid, there is a real possibility of a humanitarian crisis in the territories. Doesn't Israel have an interest in preventing a collapse of Palestinian society?

Olmert: We're not going to wait for a collapse. We're going to prevent it from the outset without any hesitation. I'm concerned about it independently of the issue of whether it would harm Israeli interests or not. It's enough that it should do something bad for innocent human beings that I will want to prevent it. That doesn't mean I have to cooperate with the Palestinian government. We have to find a way how to help the people without helping a government that can easily use these funds that will be transferred to them for different purposes altogether without any sense of regret or responsibility for the human needs of the population. We promise we will do everything we can to help meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people without any hesitation whatsoever.

TIME: How?

Olmert: There are many non-governmental organizations that can be of assistance, and money can be transferred directly to them. It doesn't always have to go across the administration of the PA in order to become meaningful. We're thinking about it. I'm having a discussion with my top advisers to see what we can do.

TIME: Will you release the $50 million in tax duties that you've withheld from the Palestinians?

Olmert: Don't expect us to release the money to the Palestinian government. This is a terrorist government and there's no way I can be sure that the money I release will go to the needs you want them for. They might go for financing terror — to Bin Laden, to Hezbollah — I have no idea. If we release the money it will not go through the Palestinian administration.

TIME: Do you visit Sharon in the hospital?

Olmert: Not at all. I have not been. I can't talk to him. He's unconscious. I talk to his doctors twice a week, so I know exactly what his situation is and I talk to his sons. For me Arik Sharon — I remember his courage and inspiration. I want to remember him the way he really was, not as an aging 80-year-old man living in bed helpless and unconscious.

The last meeting I had with him was on the day of his collapse. He was to have an operation the next day. I was supposed to be acting Prime Minister for three hours while he had the operation. He asked me to meet with him. I remember joking with him and saying, “I'm not going to make any decision tomorrow except changing all your staff.” At the end of the meeting I stood up and said “Arik, this country needs you. Stay well. Come back. I am looking forward to hearing your voice on the phone tomorrow saying ‘Ehud I relieve you of your responsibilities. I'm back in town.'” Then I hugged him and he hugged me, and I said goodbye. I want to remember that.

TIME: Do you feel lucky to have been handed the opportunity?

Olmert: I've been working 33 years to reach this minute. I've been doing what I thought was right for the state of Israel. I was never hiding my opinions. I always was at the forefront in all the political battles over the last three decades. I am where I'm supposed to be. I don't believe it was the only possible development that I would be Prime Minister. But I was among the five or six people in the room who everyone with political understanding would think could get the job.

So what happened was a natural outcome of a process of which I was a major part. There are things that can prepare you for doing this job — your wisdom or lack of it, your experience or lack of it, your personality, your frame of mind. But nothing totally prepares you for it because you've never been there before — you've never been in the place where as President Truman said, “The buck stops here.” It's your decision that will count. I hope that I'm as ready as I can get. I hope that I'm as capable as I think I am to assume responsibility. But I'm not afraid, I'm not intimidated by anything. All my life I did everything to be ready now.

TIME: Do people treat you differently now that you're Prime Minister?

Olmert: It takes getting used to. I received one of my friends at home the other day. I was in shorts and a T-shirt, which was fine. Then he had to leave, I saw him out the main door, and when I was outside, he said go back in the house. I said why, I thought he was worried about security, because the security doesn't let me go outside. He said, ‘“Look how you're dressed! You're the Prime Minister!'” I thought, What the heck? This is how I dress. But life has changed, that's for sure. I can't go to the soccer game anymore, or I can't go to the market. You have to measure the joy it gives you against the inconvenience to the average person.

TIME: Still, you became Prime Minister in pretty extraordinary circumstances, after Ariel Sharon's stroke. Did you feel prepared for the job?

Olmert: A friend of mine who's known me for 25 years told me, that perhaps the most striking effect for him was the fact I look so well-prepared for the job that's unbelievable, as if I've prepared all my life. In a way he's right. I know the professional experts of Israeli politics had other forecasts. But I knew one day I would be PM. I've felt for a long time that I knew what needs to be done and that I knew inside me that I had the emotional powers to be able to carry the burden that comes with it. It's not something that was guiding me in everything I did every morning,. I'm not that kind of person, it's just that I knew that one day I had to be ready to assume responsibility a the highest level, and that I had to think in this manner. There's nothing that's happened to me in the last few months that struck me as entirely different than anything else that I ever did in my entire life.