Ehud Olmert, Israel’s 12th prime minister, had a question for President Donald Trump on the eve of his announcement that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would move the embassy there: “When he talks about Jerusalem, what does he talk about?”
His concern was the Palestinian neighborhoods — such as Jabel Mukaber, Beit Hanina, and Abu Dis — that “never, for one second” were part of Jewish Jerusalem. From his perspective, failing to separate such neighborhoods from the rest of the city would end the conversation over its final status, instead of opening it.
“This definition [of Jerusalem] will make the difference in terms of the possible ramifications of this declaration on what will take place in the Middle East,” Olmert said.
Olmert — who was released from jail in July after serving 16 months of a 27-month sentence for a bribery conviction — spoke at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Dec. 5. His free appearance, in partnership with Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, was the second installment of a four-part series on the Middle East in the Trump era. The series began in November and runs through March.
The mostly friendly crowd did not grill him over his governing record. In fact, the first question asked of him was when he might return to political leadership. He answered, to light applause, “I don’t know. We’ll wait and see.”
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and now the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at
Princeton University, moderated the conversation. His first question to Olmert was about his conviction. Olmert declined to review details of his case but said he had “enormous respect for the legal system” and “had to pay the price.”
During the remaining hour and a half, Olmert commented on such subjects as Israel’s security, the prospects for achieving a two-state solution, and lessons learned from his tenures as mayor of Jerusalem (1993-2003) and prime minister of Israel (2006-09).
One of the boldest statements he made that evening concerned security. “There has never been in the entire history of the State of Israel a situation similar to the one we have now, without any strategic threat to the State of Israel,” he said.
He acknowledged “all kinds of threats” from Hezbollah to Iran to Vladimir Putin, but discounted them one by one. “We don’t have to panic,” he advised, although he said Israel must remain vigilant by maintaining its military strength and using intelligence and technology to “make sure we know every single minute what happens away from the borders of Israel.”
Most poignant in the conversation was his discussion of the failed negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Olmert recalled the moment the talks fell apart—as the parties were looking at the maps of a proposed Palestinian state prepared by his experts. He said he implored Abbas — who was hesitant about signing a peace agreement that included a large Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and putting the Old City under international control —“‘Listen, if you will not accept it, in the next 50 years there will be no prime minister of Israel to offer you what I am offering now. Sign it. Now. President, sign it; let’s make history, let’s change the lives of people.”
Abbas “never said ‘no,’” and instead planned a meeting for the next morning, which never took place. “The rest is history,” said Olmert, and no agreement was signed. He added, with a labored sigh communicating his pain and disappointment, “This was a tragic mistake…. Can you imagine what a difference it would have made to the whole region, to the millions of people, maybe to the whole world?”
But despite all that has transpired since, said Olmert, he remains hopeful that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible with committed leadership. “[Y]ou need leaders on both sides,” he said, “that are capable of taking the risk of being unpopular for a certain period of time for the sake of achieving a much greater national goal for them and for the entire region.”
An additional dig to the current leadership came when he suggested that one reason for public opinion skewing to the right in Israel is simply a lack of a public personality who could galvanize the country.
He paraphrased Yuval Rabin, the son of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, who once said, “Two prime ministers in Israel were destroyed because they were aspiring to make peace. One was killed by bullets. And one by documents.”
Olmert said his legacy will not be clouded by controversy. “I believe that what I have been doing all my life in different positions speaks for itself, and that will overshadow everything else that has taken place.”
He remains an optimist. “I am the greatest believer that there can be peace and that there will be peace,” he said. “It depends on us. On all of us. If we work hard, if we have the inner strength to overcome prejudices, it will be.”