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Former PM Olmert: 'Netanyahu is finished'

In an exclusive Al-Monitor interview, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fail to form a government after the Sept. 17 elections and will be cast aside by Likud before a third round of elections.

“Netanyahu is finished,” former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had concluded in January with Israeli elections pending in April. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on Aug. 28 in Tel Aviv, Olmert stuck by his earlier prediction and expanded on his assessment of the upcoming elections. In short, he doesn’t expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or anyone else to succeed in forming a government after the Sept. 17 vote, leaving Israelis to face yet another round of elections.

Al-Monitor:  During the last election, you predicted that Netanyahu will be unable to form a government. What do you foresee happening with the Sept. 17 election?

Olmert:  I’m glad you remember that, because most people don’t. When I saw the election results, it was obvious to me that there could be no government, because the gap between [Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor] Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties was too wide to bridge by conventional means. I am telling you today that no government will be formed after the upcoming election. If the polls reflect [the] public sentiment, there is no chance of a government being formed. Netanyahu is finished. [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz won’t be able to form a government either. There will be a third round of elections toward the end of the year or early next year, unless someone does something that is a 180-degree reversal of what that person originally promised to do.

Al-Monitor:  What about a unity government?

Olmert:  It will be impossible to form a unity government with Netanyahu, because Blue and White has made a commitment not to sit in a government with him. The Likud will only throw Netanyahu out before a new [third] election. That will be preceded by primaries [in the Likud], and I don’t think Netanyahu will be elected then.

Al-Monitor:  What’s your opinion about the statement by Arab Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh that he would be willing to join a center-left government under certain conditions?

Olmert:  Odeh worded his statement cautiously. He didn’t say straight out, “I am ready to join a center-left government.” He said he doesn’t reject the idea — and even that is going quite far. I’m glad about Odeh’s statement, and I also have no doubt that it will lead to a split in the Joint List. The members of Balad faction will not join [the government].

Al-Monitor:  Blue and White rejected his statement. What do you think about that?

Olmert:  I think it’s time to put an end to this boycott of the Arab parties when forming a government. By the way, my government had an Arab minister, Raleb Majadele. I see no reason why Odeh and [Ta’al leader Ahmad] Tibi shouldn’t be members of the government. The response by Blue and White members that they will not form a government with Arabs under any circumstances was a mistake. If we don’t give Arab citizens of the State of Israel the feeling that they are partners in everything, including them being legitimate partners in running affairs of state, Arabs won’t come out to vote.

At the same time, Arab Knesset members must take care of Israel’s Arab population. If they don’t take care of them, and the Jewish Knesset members won’t either, if all that is expected of the Arab voter is to vote in order to reduce the size of the right-wing bloc and help all sorts of other parties form a government without them, then this is an absurd situation. It’s completely unacceptable.

Al-Monitor:  What do you think about the Likud’s demand that cameras be installed in polling stations in the Arab sector?

Olmert:  It was a terrible thing, intended to discourage Arabs from going to vote. I’m glad that the chairman of the [Central] Elections Committee banned it.

Al-Monitor:  Is the Israeli public ready to include Arabs in the government?

Olmert:  I think that resistance among parts of the Jewish population to including Arabs in the government is actually a case of them opposing the Arab sector’s current leadership, which excels in particularly extreme rhetoric on diplomatic issues. On the other hand, some of the positions taken by the Arab Knesset members aren’t that different from the positions of the Meretz party, and I don’t think that Meretz members were disqualified from participating in a coalition.

Al-Monitor:  Your talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seem to have been the last time that there were serious negotiations with the Palestinians in an attempt to reach an arrangement. What do you think about President Donald Trump’s peace plan?

Olmert:  I’m not familiar with the plan, and I don’t know what it includes. Had it met all the needs of the State of Israel, I am sure that Trump would have released it already. On the other hand, it is possible that it includes demands from Israel that fail to coincide with Netanyahu’s political needs and that this is why Trump hasn’t released it [yet]. He doesn’t want to hurt Netanyahu.

Al-Monitor:  Can you foresee a situation in which Netanyahu rejects the plan?

Olmert:  There is a big chance that when the plan is released, the Palestinians will reject it. In that case, Netanyahu will be able to say that Palestinians oppose it anyway, so he doesn’t have to reject it himself.

I believe that a plan like that has no meaning unless both sides come away feeling significantly uncomfortable with it. If the plan favors one side, such as Israel — if it meets Israel’s demands while completely ignoring the Palestinians’ demands — what chance is there of it being accepted? Will Abbas and the Palestinians agree to discuss a plan that does not include a two-state solution? If the plan does include a two-state solution, that would mean that the Israeli government would have to say that it accepts the idea. It is obvious that a Palestinian state will not be located in the Negev region. It will be formed in the West Bank. What this means is that Netanyahu will have to declare publicly that he agrees to a solution that includes a withdrawal from most West Bank territories. I don’t believe that Netanyahu will do that.

Al-Monitor:  Over the last few years, Abbas has lost much of his political stature. How much of that is Israel’s fault? Can he still be a partner for peace, in keeping with your [September] statement in Paris last year?

Olmert:  I don’t know anyone else who can be a partner. Everyone who speaks out against Abbas should ask themselves, Who will replace him? And will the person who does replace him have the authority as a leader to take the bold steps necessary to reach a peace agreement with Israel? As long as Abbas can manage things, I hope he continues to manage them. I really believe that he wants to reach an arrangement with us, even though I have quite a grievance against him for never finishing what we were almost able to do.

Beyond that, there can be no doubt that the current Israeli government did everything it can to weaken Abbas and make him irrelevant. It did this intentionally. It was no mistake.

Al-Monitor:  Does that include strengthening the rule of Hamas in Gaza, as Abbas accuses Israel of doing?

Olmert:  Of course. I say it openly and explicitly. The current Israeli government headed by Netanyahu regards Abbas as an enemy and Hamas a partner for the kinds of arrangements that defer any possibility of the government taking steps to instigate fundamental changes to the situation in Gaza. I think that all the money being sent to the Gaza Strip should have to go through Abbas, because we regard him as the president of the Palestinian people, and we consider Gaza to be Palestinian territory. In that case, the authority figure who represents the Palestinian population is Abbas and not someone else.

We need to create a situation that offers hope on the horizon and a real chance for the Palestinian population of Gaza, 99.9% of whom just wants to live quietly. They oppose terrorism. They do not cooperate with terrorism. What is happening now is that Hamas, which is a terrorist organization, fires rockets at us, but who do we punish? It’s not Hamas. It’s the general population of the Strip. The strategy of the Israeli government should not be to punish the residents of Gaza but to offer them a chance for something better on the horizon, to provide them with electricity 24 hours a day, to help them build a deep-water port, to help improve the economic prospects of the Gaza Strip, to assist them in attracting industry, and to help people from Gaza work in Israel like they used to, with all the necessary oversight.

Al-Monitor:  What are the implications of a policy that prefers Hamas to Abbas?

Olmert:  It makes the chances of successful negotiations more remote. We aren’t cooperating with Hamas in order to prepare it to be a partner in future diplomatic negotiations. We cooperate with them in order to weaken Abbas, so that we are not pressured to negotiate with the person with whom we actually can negotiate.

Al-Monitor:  Netanyahu is putting considerable effort into establishing an anti-Iranian alliance with the US and Gulf states. Do you think this is part of a strategy to keep the Palestinian-Israeli issue on the sidelines?

Olmert:  As long as we don’t resolve the Palestinian problem, none of the moderate Arab states will agree to go public about their relationships with Israel. Everything will be behind the scenes and unofficial. Publicly and officially, they will continue to attack Israel, just as they do today. The Jordanians actively oppose Israel at the United Nations even though we have a peace treaty and diplomatic relationships with them.

Al-Monitor:  It has recently been reported that King Abdullah refused to meet with Netanyahu.

Olmert:  I don’t know anything about that, but in any event, they haven’t been meeting. We have diplomatic relations and close ties with Jordan. Why shouldn’t they meet? The same is true with Egypt. Do Netanyahu and [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi meet? Does Netanyahu go to Cairo? Does Sisi visit Israel? No. Why? There’s just one reason: The heads of state of countries considered moderate are unwilling to be exposed as having ties with a country that is perceived by the Arab world as an occupier and oppressor of the Palestinian people. Until that is resolved, there will be no change in our relationships with the Arab states.

Al-Monitor:  What went wrong with your 2007 peace talks? Could the Annapolis talks have resulted in a peace agreement with the Palestinians?

Olmert:  My negotiations with the Palestinians began a year earlier. The negotiations were very serious, very detailed and very precise. They certainly could have led to a peace agreement in the end. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership made a tragic mistake by interpreting anticipated political changes in Israel in such a way as to prevent them from taking that one last step to reach a peace agreement. Abbas was convinced — I don’t know how — that if he signed a peace agreement with me, and then another government came to power, it would be impossible to keep the agreement intact. Even if that were true, what would he have lost? If he had signed a peace agreement with me and then another government in Israel tried to disavow it, he would be in a much stronger position internationally.

If I had brought my peace proposal, once it was accepted by the Palestinians, to the Israeli public for approval, it would have received the support of over 70% of the population. I have no doubt about it. I don’t think that there is opposition to it today either. If there was an Israeli leadership that adopted my position and managed to reach a reasonable arrangement with the Palestinians, the Israeli public would support it.

Al-Monitor:  What do you think about the media circus surrounding the [Aug. 25] elimination of the [Iranian] drones in Syria? Do you think it has something to do with the election?

Olmert:  I don’t know the details, so I don’t want to say if the bombing [in Syria] had anything to do with it [the election] or not. On the other hand, all the talk about it does have something to do with it. I have no other explanation as to why it was necessary to talk about it, apart from wanting to receive political credit for the action. That places national security interests at risk and could be harmful to our operational capacities.

Al-Monitor:  Trump recently said that he would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. What’s your position on that?

Olmert:  It’s excellent news. I think that the nuclear agreement improved the situation compared to what existed earlier, which is why we should have supported it instead of fighting against it. Not one of Israel’s official strategic nuclear experts that I spoke with thought that the [Barack] Obama [administration's] agreement was a bad deal. Some thought that it might have been possible to reach an even better agreement, but they all thought that this agreement was better than what was happening before it.

I don’t think President Trump should have withdrawn from the agreement. There was no reason for it, no smoking gun, no information, and no basis for his claim that the Iranians are violating the agreement. He pulled out of the agreement because when he was running for president, he claimed that it was the worst agreement in history, regardless of whether Iran violated it or not. Now they are saying that they will violate the agreement and start enriching uranium at a higher level, but the reason that is happening is because the agreement was rejected. I want dialogue with Iran. I do not want to go to war with Iran.

Al-Monitor:  At the end of September, you’ll turn 74. Are you planning a political comeback anytime in the future?

Olmert:  Ask me that after my birthday.