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A former Israeli prime minister went to jail — where he wrote a memoir

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Our next guest spent three years as the prime minister of Israel. Later, he went to prison. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of corruption. Olmert has always said he's innocent, but he's still had to serve 16 months in jail. And that's where he wrote most of his book "Searching For Peace: A Memoir Of Israel." It recently came out in English, and in it, he reflects on his long political career, which took him to the White House, the Kremlin. He tried to negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians, all of that relevant to the news of today. I spoke with Olmert last week before the recent clashes at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. He was at home in Tel Aviv. We began by talking about his time in jail.

EHUD OLMERT: It's not the best possible way to spend your time, if that's what you need to know. Well, the bottom line - you may be president and prime minister or an ordinary citizen. When the court decides that you're guilty, you're guilty. And you have to bow your head and accept the judgment and behave accordingly, which I did.

ESTRIN: You were washing the floors just like any other prisoner.

OLMERT: Absolutely. I can't complain about the circumstances, conditions. I had the premises there that allowed me to just sit in a room where I could concentrate and write my book. And that's what I did.

ESTRIN: You reflect in the book on your long career. There were many formative events...

OLMERT: Yeah.

ESTRIN: ...Including your decade as mayor of Jerusalem. And this was during a period of intense violence and suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians in the early 2000s. You personally went to the aftermath of many Palestinian bombings in your city. You witnessed horrific scenes, but then you eventually came to change your views. You came to believe in compromise with the Palestinians. So I want to ask, how did you come to hold such different views from the right-wing political establishment that you were a part of?

OLMERT: So when I became mayor of Jerusalem, I found out while I was mayor of Jerusalem - maybe because of the experience that I had in Jerusalem - that the dream of controlling millions of Palestinians within the state of Israel without giving them the equal rights and that somehow we could make an arrangement that will be seen like we are treating them on a reasonable, honest basis while we don't, that somehow, this built-in contradiction can't hold and that the sooner we separate from the Palestinians, the better we are - this is not an outcome of the pain and suffering from terror. This is because I thought that, from a fundamental moral basis, it's either you are integrating all of the Palestinians into the state of Israel and giving them full political rights and civil rights...

ESTRIN: Which I don't think you or any Israeli leader would be trying to do.

OLMERT: Which we don't want to do.

ESTRIN: Right.

OLMERT: We don't want to do because this will change completely the nature of the state of Israel from a Jewish state into something - a binational state, something entirely different. So the alternative is not to occupy the territories and deny the Palestinians of these rights but to - just to separate, which is to pull out for most of the territories.

ESTRIN: Let's talk about that alternative. At the very end of your tenure as prime minister, after you had already announced you would resign because of the corruption allegations, you made a peace offer to the Palestinian leadership. This was 2008.

OLMERT: The fundamental details was known a year before I retired, which is a long time. We could have concluded everything.

ESTRIN: You presented some of your final...

OLMERT: Unfortunately, the Palestinians didn't respond.

ESTRIN: You presented some of your final offers months after you had announced your future resignation. But I want to talk about that peace offer because, as you mentioned, Israel has been controlling millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. They want independence. You proposed leaving most of the occupied West Bank, even dividing Jerusalem between the sides. My question is, can you imagine an Israeli leader willing to go that far ever again?

OLMERT: I'm not sure because I don't know if, in the next 50 years, you'll have an Israeli leader who will have the guts to do what I did. So I don't know.

ESTRIN: I mean, beyond leadership, Mr. Olmert, I mean, let's look at the facts on the ground. How do you even disentangle Israeli settlements and Palestinian areas anymore? Is this not impossible?

OLMERT: It's not as bad as it appears sometimes to be or is understood to be by the rhetoric that everyone uses each for his own needs. If we withdraw from 95.6% of the territories, we can relocate and settle all of the Jews that live in the West Bank today and empty all the rest of the territory for the Palestinians to live there and to build their country. It needs courage. It needs imagination. It needs determination, you know, of someone holding that position of leadership, of prime ministership to really want to do it.

ESTRIN: Mr. Olmert, let's turn to another conflict that the current Israeli prime minister is trying to mediate, the war in Ukraine. You yourself have been to the Kremlin. You've met President Putin. You've worked with him. What was your interaction like?

OLMERT: My interaction with Putin was very good. Last time I saw him was actually after I retired already. He invited me to have dinner with him in his home, in his private home. But I have to say two things. No. 1, I entirely disagree and criticize what he did. And I think this is horrible, and there's no question about it. The other thing I have to say is that, from time immemorial, the East will not tolerate the positioning of American missiles on the border of Russia in the countries which were part of the Warsaw Pact in the past.

The question, of course, is that, No. 1 was there a real, immediate, tangible threat to the security of Russia? And the other thing is that - was this the only way to deal with what appeared to him to be a threat? Or there could have been other ways of dealing other than brutal, violent invasion that bring about the death of innocent civilians. And it appears that he chose the wrong way.

ESTRIN: But what advice would you give Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is serving as an intermediator between Russia and Ukraine?

OLMERT: I don't think that he really is an intermediator of - between Russia and Ukraine, but he has been helpful in passing communication between Russia and Ukraine as the Turks did providing the premises for a couple of meetings of representatives of both sides. But I'll tell you something. If he feels that he has a chance of making a difference, then he should try to make it. How exactly to do it? That's something that, when and if he will ask me, I will tell him.

ESTRIN: That is former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaking to us from Tel Aviv. His book - "Searching For Peace: A Memoir Of Israel." Thank you.

OLMERT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY SONG, "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Amy Isackson
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