Olmert Speaks

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Ronen Zvulun / AFP / Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

TIME: You're suddenly so popular with Condi. She keeps coming on back and back. Is this just maintenance or how do you see this process unfolding?

Olmert: Condi and I share the same desire, we want to move forward. We want things to happen. We certainly don't want things to get stuck... I'm somewhat disappointed by the movement into a negative direction of the Palestinians, the Mecca agreement. I was not unhappy that the Palestinians found a way not to shoot at each other; Israel was never interested in a bloody, violent confrontation among the Palestinian organizations, so to that degree the Mecca agreement was not something that we protest. But the political framework and lack of clear and explicit recognition of the Quartet principles is lacking... Hamas didn't make any change in any of [the] principles which characterize Hamas. And so, the Haniyeh government is a big victory for Hamas, even if the number of ministers under them is smaller, considering they have absolute majority in parliament anyway.

I remind you that Abu Mazen said time and again that "I will not agree to have a government with Haniyeh as prime minister." And I'm talking about a person, Haniyeh, who is a terrorist. There should be no misunderstanding about that. Just lately, Haniyeh transferred over a million dollars for a group of terrorists to carry out terrorist actions against Israeli citizens.

TIME: Tranferred from where to where?

Olmert: Funds that were received from outside to one of the military branches of Hamas for the explicit purpose of carrying out terrorist actions. He's a terrorist. You have a terrorist who is prime minister of the Palestinian authority now. The lack of government — they make one step forward in the wrong direction, they authorized continuous resistance — and this is the code for terror. So how can one government effectively fight terror when it is committed to carry out terror?

TIME: This doesn't seem like the most wonderful time for the U.S. to press for diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Olmert: I said there was a certain setback. On the other hand — and this is what I feel independently of the agenda of the Secretary of State — I don't want to block every contact with the Palestinians, I think that would be a mistake, and I think that Abu Mazen has an independent status as democratically elected head of the Palestinian people, and it's important if I will talk with him.

TIME: Any specific areas where progress can be made?

Olmert: First, most important, at the end of the day, what will dictate mood in Middle East? Will it be the quality of life for the Palestinians? How can we help build an economy, giving them opportunities for a better life, how will they be free to move around their territories, their cities and not feel they are under continuous pressure — if it's not necessary for security? How will we facilitate the movement of goods, back and forth to Gaza, for instance... I want them to live better, and I think that the better off they will be, the less bitter they will be, and that is not insignificant in the context of feelings that are part of our life here...

The other subject I'd like to discuss with Abu Mazen is what is he actually doing in order to defeat terror, to stop violence from his side. By the way, you should all remember that in November last year, we announced a cease-fire in Gaza. And since the announcement there was not one day without Kassam rocket shooting in south Israel and we did not even respond even one time. It is not so simple — you are familiar enough with spirit of Israeli politics and the manners in which the political attacks are carried out by some of my opponents, and this is not the obvious reaction to refrain from responding to Kassam rockets for four months. I did it because it's always the temptation to resort to the use of force, and sometimes it's inevitable. But I'm doing everything in my power to refrain from it unless it can't be possible, and because I hope that ultimately the Palestinians will carry out their security plans and will exercise their authority to stop violations of cease-fire.

TIME: Clearly, you're not in the most comfortable political position right now. Is there anything dramatic that you can do to turn your situation around, or is it just the daily slog towards renewed respectability?

Olmert: I'm not in the most comfortable position, but I think my government is very stable, perhaps more stable than any government in modern Israeli history. Fact is, [if] you look back over the last few months that have been very difficult politically, there hasn't been one single move that we haven't been able to carry out because of political difficulties or lack of support in parliament. We passed the budget in January, for the first time in maybe 20 years — so quickly, and without changes, no political pressures. This is very dramatic in Israeli politics. All the reshuffles, changes of committee heads, in this respect, the government is quite stable. But the political atmosphere is uncomfortable, no question about it, and I'd be the last person to ignore this.

TIME: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said he was willing to resume negotiations with Israel... Why not reach out at this point to Syria? I understand there were low-level contacts.

Olmert: I wasn't part of these low-level contacts, they weren't serious, and weren't considered so by the Syrians. It wasn't a measure for anything. But it's a valid question. Why not? I wouldn't say no. I never say no. But if you want to succeed in moving forward... then he has to be prepared in a way that will create better chances for successful completion. Therefore we need patience and... we [must] be certain that when we talk about negotiations for peace with Syria that what we have in mind and what they have in mind is broadly the same... I don't rule out negotiations with Syria. It just needs to be done in a manner that will guarantee that we can move forward rather than get stuck almost in the beginning.

TIME: What about the other peace initiatives going around, with the Arab Quartet and specifically the Saudis?

Olmert: I can tell you that if I'd had an opportunity to meet with King Abdullah of the Saudis — which I have not — he would be very surprised to hear what I have to say. I look very favorably at the active role Saudis are now playing in the Middle East for many years. In the past there were concerns about the role of the Saudis I think that now the influence of restraint and responsibility and the vision which is manifested by His Majesty's very interesting — and it's not a secret that I read carefully the Saudi initiative — and it's a very interesting approach. It's not a political document, not well-defined to the last dot. It's an approach, an attitude, a state of mind, and I like this state of mind. I guess there all kinds of details that I would easily accept and some that I may not. But the strategy is different, and it's interesting.

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