“In order to guide the public, the leadership must direct the public to take the path that the State of Israel must take — not in the direction dictated by several irresponsible, populistic, overexcited and inflamed members of the [Likud] Central Committee.” These were the words used by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to conclude the rare interview he granted, in honor of Jerusalem Day [celebrating the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967]. According to Olmert, the political context of the national holiday on Sunday is clear: the declarations of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu, stating that he will not forfeit the unity of the capital city even in exchange for a future peace agreement. “The test of a leader is the ability to make decisions, even those that are not popular in the eyes of part of the public,” states Olmert, and warns that “the search for popularity at any price, can cost us the entire country.”
“We will have to sacrifice a ‘unified Jerusalem’”
According to Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem has not been united for years. Today, he admits for the first time that even when he served as prime minister of Israel, as well as during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, he neglected the eastern neighborhoods of the city. “I think that Jerusalem is advanced in many ways,” says Olmert but immediately qualifies his statement. “When I talk about the advanced city of Jerusalem I am talking about western Jerusalem. I refer to the Jewish neighborhoods, even those neighborhoods on land that was not part of the city before 1967. In the other sections of Jerusalem, in which Jews don’t live, there is no great difference [i.e. they are not advanced]. I have come to very sad conclusions regarding the future of Jerusalem as a united city, when I see that Israeli governments are not capable of, or maybe lack the will, to invest the necessary resources in Jerusalem so that unification of the city won’t remain a slogan but become a reality. No government of Israel since 1967 has done even a tiny percentage of what is needed to unify the city in real terms. This is a tragedy that will lead us, against our will, to unavoidable political sacrifices. By the way, there should be no doubts here, I’m not rolling my eyes when I say this: yes, the government that I headed also did not do what was necessary to transform Jerusalem into a united city. True, we did invest in the city, but we consciously invested mainly in the western sections and the new neighborhoods like Har Homa, Pisgat Zeev, Ramot and Gilo. We avoided investing in areas that in the future, may very well not be part of the Jerusalem under the State of Israel’s sovereignty.”
Do you mean that the slogan “a unified Jerusalem” has not lived up to the test of time?
“It was never unified in the way that people talked about it. We have to sacrifice the slogan because we have to face the reality of life. If someone wants to say that Issawiya is Jerusalem, I can’t stop him. When was Issawiya part of historical Jerusalem? When was Abu Dis part of historical Jerusalem? When was Jabal Mukkabir part of historical Jerusalem? What memories do the people of Israel have, of the names I have mentioned? When did we ever pray for Abu Dis, that suddenly it is being sanctified as if there’s no life in Jerusalem without it and without all kinds of other neighborhoods populated by Arabs? We cannot unite them and connect them to the real [social] fabric of Jerusalem. These places have only caused us heartache, nothing else. We cannot talk about peace and say we want peace, yet refuse to believe that peace requires us to shake ourselves free of slogans that we have all used. I also used them for many years. But we must realize that Jerusalem’s glory, the mutual concern for one another that it inspires in us, the special magic spell it casts on all those who view and see it — the trembling it induces in the heart of every Jew, and in the hearts of many other individuals who are not Jews — these are not dependent on whether Jerusalem’s sovereignty includes Abu Dis or Jabal Mukkabir. People have to understand this.”
Do I conclude correctly that, as far as you are concerned, the major controversy regarding the division of Jerusalem, concerns the Old City?
“Regarding the Old City, we will have to reach a settlement — and that includes the Temple Mount — that will allow us to maintain a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians. That is a very difficult, complex task mandating extraordinary sensitivity, understanding and even a sense of restraint.”
How close were we to an agreement with the Palestinians during the negotiations at the Annapolis [Middle East Peace] Conference in 2007?
“We were a hair’s breadth away from a peace agreement. The Palestinians never rejected my proposals. Even if some people will say for the millionth time — they try to argue that the Palestinians rejected my proposals — the reality was different. True, they did not accept my proposals, and that’s the difference. They did not accept them because the negotiations hadn’t ended, they were on the verge of ending. If I had remained prime minister for another four months, half a year, I believe that we would have reached a peace agreement. The gaps between us were very small, we had reached the last hurdle on the path. To tell you off-hand that we would have lived with it in total acceptance, that would be a bit exaggerated. But I believe that I had a very detailed, exact plan of how to bring the Palestinians over that last hurdle, to cross the line to the final home-stretch. I don’t want to go into [the details] because I think that it is still possible.
“Of course, if I could [have my cake and eat it too] and live wherever I wanted in every part of the Land of Israel, and also live in peace with our neighbors, and also retain the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and also preserve a democratic country, and also receive the backing of the entire international community, then I would do it. But that is impossible, and when something is impossible, a responsible leadership must recognize that fact, accept it, derive the necessary conclusions and distance themselves from cheap populism. They must act responsibly and seriously, not look for easy, [crowd-pleasing] popularity. It could be that the things I say are hard to accept, hard to come to terms with. It breaks the heart to even hear them, it angers countless people that it comes from my mouth when in the past I said different things, but it’s the truth! We will have to live with this truth, and I believe that eventually it will come to pass. I am an optimistic person by nature. It is important to remember that the lovely part of Jerusalem and the crucial part of Jerusalem and the important part of Jerusalem will always be under our sovereignty, and will always be a source of inspiration, pride, joy and elation among the Jewish people.”
Your plan, as detailed as it may be, still includes painful concessions. To what extent is the public ready for these concessions?
“I don’t think that a leadership has to get up every morning and use a seismograph to check the exact mood of the public. Leaders, especially those who want to generate historical change, need to know what is good for the nation that elected them, in order to take responsibility and make decisions. When a government will make decisions, the public will follow. I have no doubt that if we would bring my proposals to the public for a decision, just as I brought them to the Palestinian leadership, the overwhelming majority would support them. To this very day I have not the slightest doubt that if a peace settlement is ever signed, it will be exactly according to the principles I proposed.”
“You can look into eternity”
In your opinion, what is unique about Jerusalem?
“This week I took a tour of the city and I must say that I enjoyed myself immensely. I am happy that Mayor Nir Barakat reconsidered the announcement he made when he was originally elected that he would cancel the Light Rail. It is a unique transportation project that will completely change the face of Jerusalem over the years. I invested much effort in it in the past, governmental as well as municipal [resources].
I stood on Jaffa Road this week near the building of the old post office, not far from Safra [city hall] Square. I looked around me at the road, and didn’t see even one car. Everything was quiet, pleasant. We want Jerusalem to be a happy city. Not a sad city, not a closed-down city, not a city whose residents are withdrawn into themselves. We want a city that tells people, “Come, it’s fun to live here.” I don’t have to tell you that Mahane Yehuda [outdoor marketplace and bazaar] is a marvelous splash of color, of sound, a mixed population that you don’t find anywhere else in Israel. It’s just wonderful to walk there, especially since the marketplace doesn’t look like a slum or neglected site but a renovated market, well-kept, easy on the eyes and noisy, just as it should be. From this aspect and many other aspects I think that it’s very progressive.
I also really like the entrance to Jerusalem. I feel that I’m entering another place where a different atmosphere surrounds you. I really like the Chords Bridge [also known as the Jerusalem Bridge of Strings] conceived by Santiago Calatrava, one of the world’s greatest architects; in my time, I had made the decision about its construction. The bridge is really a special combination of bridge and gate, since historic Jerusalem is a city of gates: Zion Gate, Jaffa Gate, Nablus Gate, Lions’ Gate, and now, Chord Gate.”
Is there a special place that you like to frequent in the capital?
“I liked to stand on the Tower of David and observe Jerusalem from all its sides. When you stand in Jerusalem and look from on high, you can observe eternity. Where else can you do such a thing? In addition, I love the song “From the Summit of Mount Scopus” and also Yehoram Gaon, the vocalist who sang the song. And I also like to stand on this summit and gaze at Jerusalem. Thousands of years we yearned for this city; it is a great privilege for us to stand there and bow down [in accordance with the words of the song], a privilege granted to our generation. I hope that we will retain and keep the city, even if we have to sacrifice Abu Dis for it—not too terrible [a deal].”
Is there something about the city that bothers you?
“The human distribution is one of the issues that bothers me about Jerusalem. I feel that there are different populations who live here but have no connections with one another. This is true not only regarding Jews and Arabs, but also with regards to ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews. There is also something missing in the general unity of the city’s structure. What is missing is a more flowing ‘downtown’ (city-center), a place where everyone goes: all the people, [city] life, the Jerusalem spirit. It doesn’t exist yet but we have to leave something to the [current] mayor to accomplish in his tenure, and I hope he will do it successfully.”
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