Olmert Speaks

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Ronen Zvulun / AFP / Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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TIME: What makes it different?

Olmert: It says, clear-cut, in the most explicit manner that the resolution of the conflict with Israel should not be made by violent measures and that the Arab countries ultimately should recognize the state of Israel and its right to exist. It sounds so simple. What's the big deal? But can you get [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal to say it, or the other terrorist organizations to spell it out explicitly? Ismael Haniyeh? So sometimes the simplest things that look so natural for all of us — the way we look at things — are the most difficult . But to have crossed this threshold, I think the Saudis have made a dramatic impact. And as I say, if I'd met with the Saudi leader, I think he would have been surprised to hear what I have to say, and I hope that he will continue to move in the direction he has set so far.

TIME: And what would surprise King Abdullah?

Olmert: If he reads about it in TIME, he wouldn't be surprised.

TIME: What has been the impact of... the war in Iraq... on your country's security?

Olmert: ...As far as the security of Israel is concerned, of course what happens in Iraq is of significant consequence to the stability not just to my country, but to the entire region, to this axis of moderate Arab countries... We very much hope that there will be a clear-cut American victory in Iraq. And I think if you were to interview leaders of moderate Arab countries they would say the same.

TIME: How would you define that U.S. victory?

Olmert: By the growing democratization and growing unity in Iraq. A united Iraq, with a democratic administration, can be revolutionary to the entire region, and can put in a corner the radical forces which now threaten the foundations of the entire region... Victory of moderate forces will help bring peace to us and the Palestinians.

TIME: And Iran?

Olmert: Iran is a very serious issue, and only a strong America can pull the forces together to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. And a strong America has to be successful in Iraq. It's a pre-condition. If it fails there, it will not have the power to mobilize international forces to stop Iran. I'm not talking about a military operation. I'm a great believer in concerted diplomatic and economic effort that can stop Iran. I can see signs that there is an impact. Therefore I'm looking for the new U.N. resolution that will add another dimension to this. I'm really optimistic. I suggest that we will be realistic. There is growing opposition in the international community to nuclearization of Iran. I haven't lost hope. The Russians are becoming more aggressive... I think Russians are genuine when they say they are against the nuclearization of Iran. I think the Chinese are... If it continues in this direction, I'm quite hopeful. But if there will be a perception of American failure in Iraq, the encouragement to radical forces in all the moderate Arab countries can be critical, and that's why, the way we look at it here, we so much wish that there will not be no premature pull-out by America...

TIME: Last time I was here, you laid out a visionary plan — you went beyond [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, you were talking about withdrawals from the West Bank.

Olmert: I haven't ruled out withdrawals from the West Bank.

TIME: You didn't win a war, everyone's corrupt and nobody's popular. I don't think I've ever talked to a politician whose poll ratings are lower than yours. How are you going to face this crisis?

Olmert: First, of course, I think we didn't lose the war, and not everyone is corrupt and so on and so forth.

TIME: I said you didn't win the war.

Olmert: [Pauses, appears angry] And I say we won the war. We may not have won the psychological expectations of all Israeli people, but we've changed realities in Lebanon. With the passage of time, it will become clearer, the fact is southern Lebanon is entirely different today from what it was a year ago. The threats to Israeli are entirely different from a year ago. There's no question about it. One can expect more from the Lebanese army and one can hope that UNIFIL will be more aggressive, but the fact is there is not one single Hizballah person who surfaces on the ground with a gun since 14 August last year. That's a dramatic difference in the south of Lebanon, and that was the cause of the war. And the impact of Hizballah in the politics of Lebanon isn't what it used to be, certainly not what they expected. It's obvious that [Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah is much weaker. This was not the knockout, but it was a clear-cut victory for what we wanted to achieve. I don't regret my decision. And on the way, we found out some of the weaknesses that had penetrated into our own system as a result [of the fact] that for six years, we were mostly involved in fighting terrorists in refugee camps in the immediate surroundings here, and we somewhat ignored the growing threat and strategic role that Hizballah was destined to play by Iran against U.S. This is positive for Israel.

And I certainly don't think that everybody is corrupt in Israel. But I do think the political mood is very unpleasant, no question about it... Now I'm a year here after elections, and I promise you that when you come back in a year my popularity will be very different... I believe in my power to carry on, that I'm doing the right things when I see when I see the Israeli economy flourishing the way it does, when unemployment is going down dramatically, and the network of international relationship we've built, it's good news for Israel. Not without disagreements, misunderstandings, but that's natural. But when I see how I can get on the phone to almost every world leader and sort out issues and discuss them in a friendly manner, I think I'm doing the right things, and I know the day will come when most Israelis will look at it like this. I'm optimistic. If I wasn't optimistic I wouldn't be sitting in this room right now. You know don't become prime minister in Israel unless you're optimistic. You know what Ben Gurion said? That in Israel, to be a realist is to believe in miracles. I'm not that kind of realist. I don't believe in miracles; I believe in hard work, simple human decency and the ability to remain loyal to your grand vision, and never lose sight of goals.

I'm a long[-distance] runner. I jog for 10, 15 kilometers [8-10 miles], and long running takes time, you have to pace your force in such a way that you will not lose it too early, and you'll have enough energy when you're moving forward to the goals.

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