5 Questions with Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

The former Israeli Prime Minister discusses the difficult path towards peace between Israel and Palestine.

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Former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, April 18, 2013. In an interview with The Associated Press, Olmert said he will serve as chairman of the advisory board of "Genesis Angels" _ a venture capital firm focusing on early stage investment in startup companies. The firm looks toward innovations in robotics, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and other cutting edge technologies.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

Following high–level dialogue between the U.S. and both Israelis and Palestinians, hopes that peace talks might resume soon following a two–year hiatus are being revived by a revamped Arab peace plan and an announcements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that any accord would be put to a referendum.

This past weekend in New York City, at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post, I spoke on behalf of Great Decisions with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – an early champion of the two–state solution who is rumored to be considering a challenge to Netanyahu despite corruption accusations that forced him out of politics in 2009 – about the changing landscape of the peace process, life in Israel after the Arab Spring, the twin challenges of Iran and Syria, and relations with the U.S. Below is a condensed version of our discussion.

Have U.S.–Israel relations turned a new corner in the Obama administration's second term?

I think relations are good. There is a fundamental commitment on behalf of the United States to the people of Israel. The president said we will always make sure that the qualitative edge of Israel against its adversaries will be protected and it will be protected by America. This is very significant for our future and this has been committed by President Obama, so I am not worried about the relations between the two countries. I do hope relations between the two leaders will be better.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Are the U.S. and Israel on the same page regarding Iran?

We've always viewed Iran as a threat, and we always thought it has to be dealt with by the U.S. and Israel, but really by the leadership of America. America is the strongest power on earth. What are we aiming at? Telling America what to do, instead of asking America to make sure that the fundamental interests of the state of Israel are protected? And that's what America says. The president said recently that Iran will not be nuclear, full stop. Chuck Hagel, secretary of defense, said the same. John Kerry, secretary of state, said the same. When they say so, I have no doubt that they mean it.

How has Israel positioned itself following the Arab Spring?

The neighborhood has not become necessarily nicer or friendlier. But the question is not to deny there are changes, but to see how we can cope with these changes and make sure the fundamental interests of Israel are not damaged. I think that while Egypt is now controlled – democratically by the way, they were democratically elected – the Muslim Brothers are primarily troubled by the need to provide quality life for 80 million people in a very, very poor society. I think they understand that any change in the balance between them and the state of Israel will bring more damage to Egypt than benefit.

The president of Syria is personally responsible for the killing of almost 100,000 Syrians. He is done.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In the end, the revolutionaries will get rid of Assad. The question is who are the revolutionaries? What are they made of? Who do they rely on? Is al–Qaida, is Iran, dominant in this, or are they peace–loving forces, democratic –loving forces that will become dominant in this movement. It still remains to be seen, but I think the danger that suddenly there will be a unified front that will endanger the state of Israel is far too far. We don't have to worry about at this point or in the foreseeable future.

What are the biggest obstacles to peace on both the Israeli and Palestinian side today?

On the one hand, Palestinians need to forget their traditional rhetoric with regard to the state of Israel, particularly the demand that there will be a return of all the Palestinian refugees. I mean, why do you create an independent Palestinian state when you want to go back to the state of Israel. What is the logic of this? This is ridiculous. They have got to go to the state of Palestine, which will be created in territories that are inhabited by Palestinians anyway.

And the state of Israel has to reconcile with the need to unfortunately pull out from territories that are historically ours, that are historically part of the legacy and history of the Jewish people, but are inhabited by Palestinians. There is no way that we can get rid of them and that we want to get rid of them. Yet at the same time, if we were to live together with them, they have to be full citizens with full rights, voting rights, in the state of Israel, which means that they will become a majority in a Jewish state.

So if we want to have a Jewish state and a democratic state, the only way is to compromise. This is a difficult process and emotional process and psychological process for some Israelis, including the prime minister, but they will have to get adjusted. And I know that they will get adjusted at the end. The question is of how soon, before it is too late. I always say that the prime minister of Israel has this habit to do the right things in the wrong time. And it's time he will do the right thing at the right time.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

What did you make of President Obama's recent move to facilitate rapprochement between Israel and Turkey?

I was very much in favor of rapprochement five years ago. I said to Bibi Netanyahu that he should apologize to the Turks. Not for stopping the Marmara for entering and breaking the siege on Gaza, but for killing, regrettably, nine Turkish citizens that we definitely did not want to kill but as a result of this event, they were killed. We should apologize and compensate them and not endanger the strategic relations we have with Turkey. I said to Bibi, "The question is not whether you will apologize, you will definitely apologize, the question is whether you will apologize in time and whether it will be sufficient." That is precisely what we face now. I thank President Obama for brokering this rapprochement and I regret is was so late. I hope in the future the prime minister will do the right thing in the right time, and not too late.

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