Q&A: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

On Thursday, after it was revealed that Israeli police were investigating charges that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from an American benefactor when he was mayor of Jerusalem, Olmert pledged not to resign unless he was indicted. But earlier in the week, in an interview with Newsweek's Lally Weymouth, Olmert sounded resigned to the possibility that he might stand down. He also spoke of his hopes for achieving peace with both the Syrians and the Palestinians this year. Excerpts:

Newsweek: What did you and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talk about during her visit here last week?
We talked about the ongoing discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, about the possibility of having an understanding that will lead to the realization of President Bush's vision—the two-state solution. (Article continued below...)

Do you and she think [a peace agreement with the Palestinians] is possible? Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly said when he recently left Washington that he was very disappointed.
I don't want to comment about statements made by Dr. Abbas. My discussions with Condoleezza Rice are serious and in general optimistic that peace can happen--that the distance between us and the Palestinians is not such that it can't be bridged.

So do you still believe that there can be a declaration of principles or an agreement with the Palestinians [by year's end]?
A more detailed and accurate outline of how a solution of the two states should look.

Does that include Jerusalem and the difficult issues (borders, refugees)?
Some of the issues will be discussed later by agreement. The future of Jerusalem is one of them. It is probably going to be the last issue.

It will not be resolved by you and Abbas?
Maybe yes, but in a later stage.

In Annapolis, didn't you, President Bush and President Abbas talk about concluding a statement of principles or a framework agreement by the end of this year?
I don't know if you call it a statement of principles or a declaration of principles. They all amount to the same thing. We want to be able to define the vision of President Bush about the two states in a more accurate, specific and detailed manner.

I heard that you have a very good relationship with Abbas. Is that correct?
Yes. Because we meet quite regularly. More or less twice a month. I don't know of any greater frequency of meetings between leaders of nations.

Is it true that the talks have gone fairly far?
Yes, I think so—far enough to justify the efforts we are making and the desire to continue. Whether it is sufficient is a little bit premature to say.

What can you say about the talks in detail? Do you think Israel would give up settlements, retreat to the pre-'67 borders? How do you see the final outcome of the negotiations?
Well, one can say that the borders, once agreed, will be closer to what they were in '67 than what they are today because we will give up a large part of the territories . . . in the context of full, comprehensive peace and the total end of any hostilities.

Does that mean the Palestinians will give up the right of return?
I don't think they have to give it up. They don't have a right of return, and I don't think that this is on the agenda as far as Israel is concerned.

You said [a Palestinian state] would be closer to the pre-'67 borders. Do you think you can achieve such an agreement?
I think that the distance between us and them is not unbridgeable. I think that there are three issues which can be resolved: One is the territorial issue; the other is security arrangements; and the third is refugees.

Do you want peace with Syria, and do you think it's obtainable with President Bashar al-Assad?
We are very unhappy with the continued intensive involvement of Syria in the affairs of Lebanon and the lack of a democratic process in electing a new president in Lebanon. We are also unhappy with the continued links between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. [But] the relations between us and Syria have to be reexamined, [as well as] the possibility of making peace. It's not something that can be done publicly. I don't mind that President Assad made an announcement that there will be negotiations, but the actual negotiations ought to be discussed quietly. In principle, we are ready for it if they are.

In order to have a full peace with Israel, would Syria have to break with Iran? Is such a break possible?
Look, I don't know if this is a possibility or how you can describe it in terms of probabilities. But one thing I know, if I don't check it, I will never find out. I think at the end of the day, this will have to be the choice of Syria.

Have there been direct Israel-Syrian talks, or have they all been conducted via the Turks?
I prefer not to go into these details.

Hasn't the United States been apprehensive about Israel-Syria negotiations for some time?
The international and local press . . . [has left] the impression that America does not allow Israel to engage in negotiations with Syria. This is not true. I never heard from my friend George W. Bush any warning or any request not to negotiate with the Syrians. I think that if the Syrians will handle the negotiations with us in an appropriate manner, they will be surprised to see how these negotiations can improve their status with America. My personal view is that no one can be of better help to this process than President Bush. Because any new president in America, if confronted with this issue, will have to wait two years at least until he learns enough and finds the appropriate time to devote to this, while Bush knows, Bush is familiar, and Bush understands. Therefore, if one is interested in a [Syrian-Israeli] process that ultimately leads to a public endorsement by the United States of America, then he has to hurry up. I believe, for reasons that I don't want to go into, that for Syria, the road to Washington must cross Jerusalem. I know what I'm talking about.

Officials in the U.S. government are reportedly concerned that Syria's real price for peace is Lebanon. The U.S. is interested in the survival of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora.
I know what our expectations are. I know what the Americans' expectations are. I'm not going to do anything which [is in contradiction] to what my understanding of [what] the fundamental interests of the United States are in this part of the world.

So is this a pure deal about the Golan?
I didn't say that. I said that this is an attempt to achieve peace between Israel and Syria. And at the same time, to also make sure that the interests of free, democratic Lebanon are well protected. What the ingredients of peace [are] is something that will have to be discussed. I would not limit it to only one issue. It has to be peace from both sides--no threats or attacks from both sides.

What is your assessment of Assad?
Look, Assad is the president of Syria. He enjoys fairly effective control over his country. And I'm looking forward to negotiating with him.

What will you do about the situation in Gaza? Your towns keep getting hit by missiles, and weapons keep getting smuggled in from Egypt. Is it getting to the point where you have no other choice but to take action?
I don't like this terminology that you have no choice. You always have a choice. While we were talking, two Qassam rockets landed in open areas near the regional municipality of Eshkol. Then there were a series of seven rockets shot from Gaza to [the Israeli town of] Sderot.

Will there be an Egyptian brokered ceasefire with Hamas?
There is no talk about a peace brokered between us and Hamas. The question is whether Egypt will fully understand and support the conditions set forth by Israel for refraining from further military actions. Hamas will have to stop all of the terrorist actions—ground, ground-to-air, rockets, mortar shells, suicidal attacks—any kind of attacks by all the organizations.. . . Stopping all the violent and hostile actions means ending the smuggling of arms into the Gaza territory.

You mean via Egypt?
Through Egypt by the Palestinians. We don't blame Egypt.

Why not? Why can't they stop it?
They tried to stop it, and we hope that they will become more effective in stopping it.

What about the investigations you are dealing with?
I'm dealing with them, and, unfortunately, as a matter of law, I can't talk about it. It's unpleasant. It's mostly referring to campaign contributions.

Have you thought of saying, 'Okay, I'll just resign' . . .
I don't really see that this will bring any better outcome for the country at this point. Not that a person is indispensable or irreplaceable. . . . But given the circumstances right now, I think it will not do good that I step down at this point. I have to think about it. I have to think about the possible ramifications of an early retirement. I was not born to be prime minister, and I'm not going to stay here until the end of my life. I'm too young for that. Right now, I think it will be a mistake [to leave], and I have a job to accomplish, a vision to realize. This is the great vision of peace which I think is possible this time more than ever.

What about Iran? You told me over a year ago that tolerating a nuclear weapon was not possible.
Yes, Israel will not tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of people who say openly, explicitly and publicly that they want to wipe Israel off the map. Why should we?

If you're not prepared to live with it, is Israel capable [of striking Iran's nuclear facilities]?
I don't want to go into this issue every time I'm asked, 'Do you have plans?' The United States is the leader of the international effort to stop the Iranians from becoming nuclear. The European countries, the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese—all the most powerful nations of the world are joined together in an effort to stop the nuclearization of Iran. I hope they will be successful.

But didn't Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just say that he has added 6,000 more centrifuges to his program . . . got them up and running?
We have to listen to him, but that doesn't mean that we have to believe everything he says.

It's widely believed in the U.S. that after the latest National Intelligence Estimate [on Iran, which concluded with 'high confidence' that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003], the U.S. will not act.
We have a different opinion about [the Iranian nuclear program] from the NIE, and we haven't changed our attitude. The Israeli information is available for our friends to examine and to come to other conclusions.

You mean that you think [Iran's nuclear program] is closer to being usable?
The main point of the NIE, the estimate, was that there is no evidence that the Iranians restarted their [covert] military program since it was closed in 2003. . . . Based on the information we have, the military program continues and has never been stopped. If this program continues, at some point they will be in possession of a nuclear weapon.

There have been recent revelations in Congress about the North Korean-built Syrian nuclear reactor bombed by Israel last September. The director of the CIA actually said that the Syrian reactor would have had enough plutonium to make two bombs. What do you say?
I heard about the briefing that [CIA Director Michael] Hayden gave Congress. But I didn't talk about it before the briefing, and I won't talk about [it] now.

You can't say anything about September 6th?
We are not looking backward. We are looking forward. We are looking now to establish a peace process with Syria.