Video Interview with Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

by February 2024

JST columnist Ksenia Svetlova interviews Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about the war with Hamas during his time in office, about the current conflicts in Gaza and the northern border, and Israeli domestic politics.

Read the full transcript below. Note: This transcript is lightly edited for accuracy.

Ksenia Svetlova: Were you surprised when October 7 happened?

Ehud Olmert:  I was surprised by the extent of the military take-over of Hamas. I was not prepared for the scope of this operation. But there was no reason that I shouldn’t be surprised because, like all Israelis, I was not privy to the day-to-day intelligence that I used to have when I was in office. Yes, I was surprised. Although, I never trusted Hamas. I never wanted to deal with them. I always preferred to deal with the Palestinian Authority. And I always suspected Hamas is there for war, for fighting. I never trusted them. I knew that they would never abide by any commitment that they made. They are not supposed to. They are terrorists by nature and the inner nature of terrorists is not to make agreements, and if they make agreements, they are supposed to break these agreements. So I never felt that they would do something, but I still was surprised by this operation. This was far beyond what we were to led to expect according to the position of the government and observations made by government officials.

Israel’s First War Against Hamas, 2008-2009

Ksenia Svetlova:  In June 2007, when you were prime minister and Hamas took over Gaza, it took by surprise the Israeli intelligence services, because there was no expectation of this military coup d’état to control Gaza. Do you think, looking back, that Hamas should have been dealt with immediately when they took over Gaza? 

Ehud Olmert:  They were dealt with immediately. In [September 2007], I started the Outside the Box Operation [Israeli airstrike against the Syrian nuclear reactor]. When you say “immediately,” you have to adjust the specific timing to political circumstances. In this respect, one may say, why didn’t you start a war [against Hamas] in June 2007? Because in June 2007, I was preparing to destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria, which was far more dangerous to the very foundation of the State of Israel. That was the priority I had to deal with. 

Then I was looking for an opportunity [against Hamas] and I found it in December of 2008, and waged a war. I still think that this was a missed opportunity because the political circumstances were very difficult, very complex. I had already announced my retirement. Elections were set for the 10th of February 2009. We were coming close to the end of 2008 and I knew that before I leave office I have to remove Hamas. 

We had three planned phases of operation. After the first phase was about to conclude, I realized that Hamas was very weak and that they were not really fighting in the manner in which we may have expected. And we had killed many of them, close to a thousand in the first few days. I then decided that we had to continue to take over the Philadelphi Line [the corridor along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, established to prevent smuggling]. Now [this line] and Rafah have become very dominant in our discussions. We had a plan that had been trained for in exercises and we knew precisely what we needed to do. 

However, and until then, we had all together ten casualties after more than a week of fighting. And of the ten casualties, eight were killed by our own people. So we really had two soldiers that were killed by Palestinians after more than a week of fighting, which was evidence of the weakness of Hamas at the time.  

Then the Defense Minister [Ehud Barak] was completely insane along with a couple of senior ministers, and they were starting to spread all kind of stupid accusations, that I wanted to extend the war in order to postpone the elections and carry on as prime minister, and so on. 

It is one thing to take a decision even if everyone is against you when you are completely in control. At the end of the term when you are about to retire, three weeks before the election date, to continue fighting against the position of all of the political and defense leadership, was something that couldn’t have been done. I think we missed an opportunity, the last opportunity we had to destroy completely Hamas in carrying on and keeping them out completely, and then to bring in the Palestinian Authority to take over and be done with it. We made a mistake.

Then from 2009 to 2021 with Benjamin Netanyahu in power, they [the Israeli government] understood the Palestinian Authority to be the real enemy. Why? Because there is no way that you can deal with the Palestinian Authority without some compromises. You can argue about the extent of this compromise, and so and so forth, but there must be a compromise. At that time already, Netanyahu’s political thinking and his fundamental attitude was that he can rely only on the extreme right.

The Current Israeli-Palestinian State of Affairs

Ksenia Svetlova: You said it would have been possible [in 2008-2009] to get rid of Hamas all together. Of course after this [current] war, it will be weakened, but it will still entrenched in the soil while the Palestinian Authority is at its weakest point perhaps since 1993. Is it too late for us as Israelis to solve the Palestinian issue?

Ehud Olmert: The idea spelled out by Netanyahu that at the end of the military operation, and the ground offensive, the army would wipe out Hamas, that we will dismantle them and we will leave Gaza in rubble, and Gaza will be destroyed. Well Gaza is destroyed to a large extent, but from the beginning his expectation was unrealistic and I think dangerous because it created inflated expectations that cannot be accomplished. 

We come very close to the point where continuing the military operation will add very little to the realization of peace. The dream of annihilating Hamas will cost us in terms of the human life of soldiers and also the human lives of the hostages. So this is the time where we have to take a very crucial decision. It requires a leader with a 180 degree different orientation than Netanyahu. It requires a leader with strength, with determination, with broad mind and with an ability to do the opposite of what appears to be popular at a particular minute. Because what we have to do now is to decide that the only possible way to bring back the hostages, alive or dead, hopefully mostly alive, is to stop the fighting now. 

Of course [this requires] an agreement, that will be brokered by Egypt, by Qatar, by America to stop the fighting, to start an Israeli movement outside of Gaza and create an international intervention force, that will come for a period of a year, a year and a half, made of European soldiers. 

NATO as a body cannot come but soldiers of NATO countries, as we saw in the south of Lebanon in 2006, can certainly come. If they come, and we will as part of this war also move out and bring back the hostages, then it will create a somewhat different reality for a period of time. That doesn’t mean that we will have finished our dealings with Hamas and with Jihad, and with the terrorists. 

The time we thought it would take to wipe out Hamas, over a month, over two months, is ridiculous. This was done on purpose by Netanyahu to create an expectation that cannot be fulfilled so that afterward he would be able to say, I wanted it but the military leadership of Israel, the generals, the chief of staff, the head of Shabak [internal security service in charge of Palestinian affairs] failed to do it. 

I thought from the beginning that the military leadership should be more restrained in what they promised as a possible military achievement so that they would not fall into the trap that Netanyahu set for them. I still think that we have come very close to the point where we can declare victory because we did destroy the major part of [Hamas’s]  military power. We killed more than 10,000 Hamas fighters. We destroyed most of the bunkers and the tunnels, and the lodging beds, and their weapons. And we can declare victory. 

We can then, if we pull out from Gaza then there is a likelihood  that the Americans and the Europeans send an intervention force of European soldiers. And we have to offer a political horizon, which we are reluctant to do. The only political horizon that exists involves negotiations with the Palestinians. Now you say the Palestinian Authority is weakened in comparison to the past.

Ksenia Svetlova: Which is not a coincidence. 

Ehud Olmert:  One must answer one question. Let’s assume that we have destroyed Hamas almost completely, the military is reduced dramatically and that they can’t threaten Israel as they have manifested. Then what? Are we going to continue to control five million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, for how long, forever? Don’t we understand that every day that passes that Israel remains an occupying power is a day that they destroy the moral foundation of the State of Israel. The perception of Israel as a democratic and enlightened country, the attitude to Israel, by a large part of the international community that says, okay, Palestinians are terrible, but you are mass murderers. Not because we are, but because this is the perception that we create, broadly speaking. This is not something that can go on. So we have to offer a political horizon. If we do not offer a political horizon, we are going to lose big time.

Ksenia Svetlova: In addition to the Palestinians, I still want to discuss the situation in the north and also internal Israel politics. But back to the Palestinians and the question of a political horizon, you really tried. Your government really tried to realize this opportunity to separate in a peaceful way. And people didn’t want to because they wanted everything. You could not find an accommodation.  What do you have to say to this?

Ehud Olmert: I have to say that pessimism is not a political plan that I subscribe to. It’s true that at the time Mahmoud Abbas was not yet ready to sign, he missed an opportunity, the greatest opportunity that the Palestinians have had since time immemorial. Still, I can tell you because I’m still in contact with Mahmoud Abbas and his people. And what was completely not possible 15 years ago, maybe comes now. And we need to put on the table, I can tell you that they are acquainted with all the different aspects of the political deal which I think can be implemented. 

I have discussed this in detail with representatives of the Palestinian Authority, with Abbas. If we will have the courage, if we will have the leadership, if we will have the vision then we can create momentum where the Americans, the Europeans and the moderate Arab countries will all join forces together to force us and the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution. It may be late, but it’s not impossible. Sometimes even when you do things late it’s better than not doing them at all. That’s what I think we should do now. 

The Current Situation on the Israel-Lebanon Border

Ksenia Svetlova: The moderate Arab countries, France, and the United States are working hard to prevent another war with Lebanon. And perhaps the first war in the north in years is about to happen. Have we lost our deterrence that was established after the war in 2006?

Ehud Olmert: Deterrence lasted for 17 years. This is the longest period ever after a military operation of Israel in any place: north, south, east.  And to this day, he [Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah] is very much deterred and he’s scared there will be an all-out war. So he’s careful. He’s not friendly. He would love to destroy Israel. But he understands this is not possible. 

How can we do it now? There is one issue, I won’t go into details, but I can tell you, there is a road for political process. And the political process involves the fate of the Sheba Farms [an area of the Golan Heights taken by Israel in 1967 and claimed by Hizbullah to be Lebanese territory].  Who will be in control of the Sheba Farms?  If this will be negotiated and the proper UN resolution will be taken, then it can be a good reason for Hizbullah to pull out, across the Litani River and for Israel to refrain from another military engagement, which is not going to be of any great benefit to the State of Israel.

Ksenia Svetlova: The question about the north is also whether Israel is not entertaining itself with the idea that it can find some kind of agreement with Hizbullah, which is basically a moral enemy of Israel. And it also, like Hamas, has an end goal to wipe Israel out.

Ehud Olmert:  I didn’t say that we would become friends with Hizbullah. Hizbullah is an enemy. But if Hezbollah will not pull out back to the Litani River, then the Israelis and even the north will not return to their homes. If they [evacuate the border region south of the Litani River], and this would be part of a resolution of the United Nations Security Council then it can create better circumstances for us to return the [Israeli] residents of the north to their homes. 

And at the same time, we must be ready with an effective defense of Israel, as we will have to do on the southern border of Israel, as we will have to do wherever we have potential terrorists coming to fight with us. The failure of the military positions on October 7th, the fact that the Israelis were not waiting for the Palestinians, Hamas terrorists and destroy them, is not in any way evidence that we are doomed to always be surprised by them. We should be less arrogant and more humble, and more prepared. And if we will be ready, we can defend ourselves very effectively in the south, in the north, in the east, everywhere.

Ksenia Svetlova: You mentioned that we always have to be prepared for the next war. This is what Netanyahu said, we would always lead with our sword. Do you expect that Israel will always lead in this way?

Ehud Olmert: Israel has to be always prepared militarily, but we also have to be smart and humble, and broad-minded, and always have a political horizon, and to be able to share it with our potential partners. One must understand something. Peace you don’t make with your friends because you don’t have a war with your friends. Peace you only make with your enemies. Palestinians are our enemies, not only Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is an enemy. I don’t think that Mahmoud Abbas is a lover of Zion. He is an enemy. I think he’s the best enemy to make peace with because we’ll not find any better.

Israel’s Domestic Politics

Ksenia Svetlova: What do you think is the timeline for [new] elections in Israel, when do you expect they will happen?  

Ehud Olmert:  I want the elections to take place in three months. I think it will take six months, but I believe…

Ksenia Svetlova: Before November 2024?

Ehud Olmert: Yes, I think so. It will be in the middle of 2024. I hope so. I’ll do everything in my power to influence public opinion to move forward.

Ksenia Svetlova:  What is the mechanism [leading to new elections]?

Ehud Olmert: I think the rage that many people, millions of people, feel in the State of Israel. I walk in the streets. I go to a store. I go to the coffee shop. I meet people. I have never seen Israelis so outraged as they are now with their government. The total destruction of the government is going to proportions, which no one has been part of our national life, our civil lives. And I think that it will erupt sooner than later, and when it will erupt like a volcano, it will sweep everyone that stands in its road and Bibi will be the first. 

Ksenia Svetlova: However, after the horrific events of 10/7, many Israelis seem to trend more to the right than ever before. There’s already this swing to the right. 

Ehud Olmert:  This is a temporary perception. At the end of the day, when they are more rational and more civil and more restrained, these people will have to ask questions: What then? What else do we do? Are we going to live with our wars forever or are we prepared to live with minds, our brains, our compassion, with the understanding of the complexities. Are we prepared to make compromises? I think this time will come. It requires leadership. We don’t have this kind of leadership presently, but we may. 

Ksenia Svetlova: Your perception from the [Arab leaders of the] Gulf, what do you hear from the leaders there? What is their perception of what’s going on in Israel and how will they want to develop relations with us?

Ehud Olmert: I don’t remember having any serious debates when I expressed my opinions to the leaders in the Gulf. So I think that they would love Israel to make it clear that we are prepared for a political process, that Israel will offer a political resolution, and everyone knows what they want.

Ksenia Svetlova: How do you envision Israel in the next generation, 20 years? How do you think it will go?

Ehud Olmert:  Israel is a very strong country. It will be smart. It will be humble. We will be careful enough we need to move forward with the political process without enemies. There is no end to what we can achieve. We are the most successful. We are the most creative. We are the most resourceful people in the world. If we don’t waste our resources and energies on wars and fightings, and occupation, and we focus on rebuilding the society of Israel, Israel will continue to be a great place and a wonderful country, and I am absolutely optimistic they will do it.

Ksenia Svetlova: Thank you very much, former Prime Minister Olmert. 

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova is the Executive Director of ROPES (The Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is a former member of the Knesset.
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