This article was originally published in the Fall 1982 issue of the Harvard International Review.
Ehud Olmert, a member of the Israeli Knesset since 1973, has been a leading spokesman for Begin’s Likud party throughout his career in the Knesset. Currently a member of the influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Olmert was recently offered the position of Deputy Minister of Information for the Prime Minister, a position which would make him official Spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office.
Prime Minister Olmert in November of 2006, Image courtesy of the U.S. State Department
Many Americans see the Palestinian issue as the main cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Arab-Israeli conflict as the main source of instability in the Middle East. Is this a realistic point of view?
I would rather say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which exists between the Jews and the Arabs in the Middle East, has emerged as the main source of instability in the region. However, some of the Arab nations, for various differing reasons, maintain an interest in leaving the conflict unresolved or in preventing any realistic solution. Therefore, trying to eliminate this conflict without confronting these Arab interests might be ineffective.
Taking into account the 154 1979 - 1982 concerns of the Arabs, what steps do you believe the Israeli government should take toward resolving the Palestinian issue?
First of all, we have to come to terms with the Syrians about Lebanon. We in Israel do recognize some of the Syrian concerns about the Lebanese border. I think they should understand that it is essential for us to avoid any future terrorist infiltration of northern Israel. We should— and can—reach an agreement with the Syrians that will satisfy the needs of both sides. Such an agreement would enable the Syrians to withdraw to their recognized borders, while allowing Lebanon’s new regime to achieve its legal position and to heal the wounds of the country. Once this is done we will be able to consider a certain political movement in the territories of Judea, Samaria, [the West Bank] and the Gaza District. I believe that, having removed the PLO from its dominant role in the Middle East, we can now be more flexible in our dealings with the Palestinians. I do not advocate altering the framework reached at Camp David, yet I do suggest that we interpret the accords in a way that may appear more attractive to the moderate elements in these territories. I think that once the bravura of the PLO evacuation from Lebanon has faded, the PLO will become insignificant, and it will be clear that extremism does not pay off. With the PLO gone, I think the more moderate Palestinian leaders will have a chance to gain influence. I expect such moderate Palestinian leaders to be met with considerable flexibility by our government, which is eager to implement the rest of the Camp David plan.
Still pushing for an independent Palestinian state, the Palestinians, until now, have rejected Begin’s offers of limited self-rule. How should Israel respond to this Palestinian nationalist movement? Are there conditions under which the Israeli government might be willing to negotiate with the Arabs and the Palestinians over the terms of the Camp David plan?
I think it would be a grave mistake on the part of all parties involved to judge the Begin government exclusively on the basis of its declarations, ignoring its practical, every-day policies. We are ready to negotiate. But you must recognize that the creation of a separate sovereign state in Judea and Samaria is totally unacceptable to a vast majority of Israelis. These citizens perceive the creation of an independent Palestinian state as an acute danger to the existence of Israel. But as I said earlier, we are ready to negotiate. We realize that both sides are not going to be completely satisfied. History shows that since the first day of Zionism, the Jews were the ones prepared to compromise, and the Arabs were always opposed to it. For example, the Jews accepted the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan calling for both a Jewish state and a Palestinian state in the area. The Arabs’ tendency to reject such compromise has doomed their efforts, and it is time to learn their historical lesson.
How can the Israeli government encourage the Jordanian and Palestinian leadership to participate in negotiation?
I think we can offer a degree of autonomy in matters that do not endanger Israel’s security. For instance, I do not mind what process they choose to select their leaders. I would even be willing to consider making some provision for the citizens of Jerusalem to vote in elections of the autonomous regions. However, it must be clearly specified that the autonomy itself does not apply to the east side of Jerusalem. The boundaries of the autonomy are outside the limits of the city as defined by Israel in 1967. Moreover, I would not insist on proscribing the everyday rel tions of the Palestinian leadership with Jordan. My personal view is that they could continue to keep open bridges and develop closer ties with the Kingdom. We always have to ask ourselves, what is the next step? If they propose as the next step the establishment of a separate, independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza – then the answer is clearly a flat no – I don’t want to be vague. However, the answer is yes to any measure that will solidify their efforts to conduct their own internal affairs without any intervention from us. The main point against a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria is that it totally does not solve the Palestinian refugee problem. Since only a minority of all Palestinians now lives in West Bank, most Palestinians might not benefit directly. Why is it necessary that the Palestinians realize their nationalistic goals in a territory that does not even include most of the Palestinian people themselves? I am not against a nation for the Palestinians, but where should it be? Why is Jordan less Palestinian than the West Bank? The Palestinians do not accept Jordan as a potential Palestinian homeland because the West Bank is the only territory on which all the Arabs are ready to unite. The PLO does not accept other alternatives because they want more than their own state. If they really only wanted a state of their own, then Jordan would seem the most natural option. People tell us we can’t live with 1.4 million Arabs in our territory, and we need to solve this problem. But is it really so extraordinary that Israel contain such a national minority? There can be a Palestinian state in Jordan, and there will be a national minority of Palestinians in Israel; the rest of the Palestinians will live in an autonomous territory that will not be officially part of Israel or any other state. The Palestinians in these territories can become citizens of Jordan is they choose, but the territories themselves will remain under the security control of Israel.
The Likud Coalition has held on to the West Bank, observers claim, for both ideological and An Israel woman (center) and a Palestinian woman gesture at each other as Palestinian women protest the visiting of Jews to the Noble Sanctuary, also known as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, October 14, 2014. 156 1979 - 1982 security reasons. Can the issue of security be separated from historical and religious claims to the land?
It is very difficult to draw a superficial distinction between the historical claim and the needs of security. The obvious need of security, which no one denies, makes such a distinction irrelevant. If it were possible to maintain our security while giving up these territories, then we might have to consider this question.
You say that you are willing to negotiate. How willing are you to compromise, and what do you expect in return? How do you see the chances of agreement with the PLO?
During the autonomy talks, each side will have the right to state its national goals— we might propose annexation while they would propose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But during the course of our negotiations, both of us must be willing to accept something less than our ultimate goals. At this stage, I think that to consider these goals unalterable would destroy the chances for an understanding. The beauty of the Camp David framework lies in its creation of a state of constructive ambiguity during the transitional autonomy period. The loose framework that allows us to accept what might be unacceptable is presented on a more rigid or too rapidly implemented plan; such an endeavor could endanger our security, and thereby its own implementation. I think we should maintain this carefully ambiguous status for a while. I would emphasize that if the Palestinians are realistic in hoping to achieve their goals, they should accept the framework agreed upon by Israel, Egypt, and the United States, within which Israel is ready to handle the matter in a relatively flexible and generous way.
This article is by an Israeli politician who has been at the forefront of negotiations ever since the internationally led peace process began between Israel and Palestine. Ehud Olmert, who was a prominent politician within the Israeli Knesset at the time of his September 1982 interview with the HIR, went on to become prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009. A centrally important figure for decades, Olmert is considered one of history’s most progressive Israeli prime ministers, due to the relatively healthy relations between his government and the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority, and his work towards a negotiated peaceful settlement.