'A Country That's Fun to Live In'

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert maps out his future plans, drops hints about a possible coalition and reveals his ideas on future disengagements and permanent borders.

Tell us, we asked Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, must a leader give a personal example to his nation?

"Definitely," he says, with a touch of suspicion.

What will be your personal example to the nation? we wanted to know.

"I don't want to sound pompous," he said, using the English word. "First of all, a leader has to lead. To be a person who has the strength, the courage and the ability to make difficult decisions and take responsibility. This is what is expected of the person who heads a state. A leader has to radiate self-discipline, diligence and devotion. Many things have been said about me over the years, and it has never been said that I am not devoted to what I do. I invest my entire soul in the responsibility that is incumbent upon me, and that is how I will conduct myself as prime minister."

Take us to the last day of your term. How will the country you leave behind you look?

"It will be a different country," he replied swiftly. "In different borders. It will be separate from the vast majority of the Palestinian population. It will be a country with less external violence and more personal security. A country that is dealing more effectively with the social ills," and here he takes a short break. "It will be," he says, "a country that is fun to live in. That people will not only love it, but will also love to say they love it."

This sounds like Green Leaf, the party that wants to legalize marijuana, we said.

Marking the borders

This week Ehud Olmert decided to dispel the fog that has covered his positions ever since, in the middle of the night, he had to take on the authority of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In an interview Wednesday, the chairman of Kadima and the leading candidate for prime minister according to the public opinion polls, presented his plan for matters of state. There is no mistaking his message: Olmert is preparing the Israeli public for a withdrawal from most of the territories of the West Bank and for setting a new border behind the separation fence, which will surround the large settlement blocs and "united" Jerusalem. Establishing the border, with broad domestic and international agreement, will be the main task of the next government, in his opinion.

"I believe," says Olmert, "that in four years' time Israel will be disengaged from the vast majority of the Palestinian population, within new borders, with the route of the fence - which until now has been a security fence - adjusted to the new line of the permanent borders. It could be that there will be cases in which we move the fence eastward, and it could be that there will be cases in which we move it westward, in accordance with a line that we will agree upon. We will take a crucial step forward in the shaping of Israel as a Jewish state, in which there is a solid and stable Jewish majority that is not at risk."

If he wins the election, Olmert intends to embark immediately on a "domestic dialogue" about Israel's permanent borders "with all of the elements that are relevant to a decision like this," he says.

Including the Yesha Council?

"Of course. They are an important part of the Israeli public. We must not give up on dialogue, [we must try to] narrow the differences of opinion with them and perhaps even reach a consensus. Anyone who thinks like I do, that it is necessary to hold negotiations with our enemies, certainly believes that first of all it is necessary to hold negotiations with ourselves."

Olmert is careful not to lock himself into pre-election promises. Not regarding people, and not regarding decisions. He refuses to say, for example, whether he will go for a plebiscite on the borders. It is too early to contemplate this, according to him.

"The principle that will guide me in conducting this dialogue," says Olmert, "is convergence into the large settlement blocks and the thickening of those blocs. At this time I do not want to go into a precise definition of them, but everyone knows that Gush Etzion will remain inside the state of Israel and that the Jerusalem envelope will be part of the state, and Ma'aleh Adumim."

Will you build in Area E-1, between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim, despite the U.S. objections?

"Of course. After all, it is unthinkable that we will talk about Ma'aleh Adumim as part of the State of Israel and leave it like an island or an isolated enclave. It is completely clear that the contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim will be built up. This is clear both to the Palestinians and to the Americans. In my opinion, on this matter there is a full consensus in Israel. Even Yossi Beilin, with whom I usually disagree about everything, has said that Ma'aleh Adumim must remain inside Israel."

And the Jordan Valley?

"In any case, our security border will be along the Jordan. There are strategic considerations for this that we cannot relinquish."

Alongside the domestic dialogue, Olmert intends to embark on talks with the international community in order to enlist its support. In his opinion, there is now a rare opportunity to achieve broad international agreement for the permanent borders he is planning. The combination of the rise of Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority and the support Israel has received in the wake of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip allows for obtaining agreements that will be difficult to achieve in a few years.

The Bibi and Peretz options

Olmert pays the obligatory lip service to the road map and to dialogue with the Palestinians, but it is evident that he does not seriously believe in them and prefers that Israel carry out unilateral moves with U.S. and European backing. He mentions again the "threshold conditions" for negotiations with the Hamas government: a change in the movement's charter, recognition of Israel's right to exist and the total cessation of terror along with disarmament.

And how long will you wait for them to fulfill these demands?

"If we reach the conclusion after a reasonable amount of time - and this will not be measured in years - that the Palestinians do not intend to act according to these principles, the State of Israel will not be their hostage. We are not prepared to wait without limits for this authority to decide when it wants to swing us from terror to a kind of negotiations, and then back to terror and back to negotiations. We experienced this during the past 10 or 15 years and we haven't gained a thing from it. Every time we decided to take the initiative, we have gained from it.

"There are two options," says Olmert, the one offered by Likud party chairman MK Benjamin Bibi Netanyahu, which says in effect, "Let's go to war, we'll occupy territories again, we'll go into the Gaza Strip, we'll go into the towns in Judea and Samaria and we will have to call up reserves for dozens of days a year in order to continue this endless war. And the one offered by [Labor Party Chairman MK] Amir Peretz, which gives up in advance, never mind whether it is Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas], or not Abu Mazen, let's kneel and run in the direction of the Palestinians. I am the only one of the contenders who is coming to the public and giving it a clear determination of borders."

Ever since the responsibility was transferred to him, Olmert has made a point of coordinating his moves with the main players in the international community. He attributes tremendous importance to personal acquaintance among leaders, as a basis for diplomatic support.

"I know how to converse with Tony Blair, with whom I have developed an excellent personal relationship, and with [Silvio] Berlusconi, and with Angela Merkel, and I believe that I will also do so with Jacques Chirac," relates Olmert. "I have spoken with each of them several times since I filled this position; I met with them in the past, and of course I will conduct a very substantial dialogue with our greatest ally, President Bush."

The leaders of Egypt and Jordan are also his friends: "We have excellent relations with King Abdullah and President Mubarak. Hardly a day goes by when messages aren't transmitted from them to me or from me to them. The intensiveness of the relations between us and the Jordanians is very great. The king laughed when he read in one of the newspapers that there is a rift between us, and I laughed too."

Can Major General Yair Naveh, whose remarks about the survival of the Hashemite royal dynasty angered the Jordanians, continue in his position?

Olmert stamps his foot and his chair shakes. "The GOC Central Command said things that should not have been said, but I am not holding a whip over Israel Defense Forces officers. The things that he said in absolutely no way, shape or form represent government policy, and when the king spoke to me he said, come on, what are you upset about? Here, too, people sometimes say things that shouldn't be said, ignore it. And I really think that this was good advice."

The international community has not recognized the full withdrawal from Gaza as "the end of the occupation." Why would it give backing to the partial withdrawal you are proposing in the West Bank?

"We did not ask that the disengagement in Gaza be accepted along with recognition of the issue of the Green Line. But for weeks, every day, we have been carrying out targeted interception actions in the Gaza Strip, with a stunning level of implementation and with a very high level of accuracy."

Does that include the Palestinian children who were killed this week?

"Of course this is a tragedy, (but) it was a one-time event from among some 10 interceptions that the IDF has carried out recently, and there is not a single word of criticism anywhere in the world. And do you know why? Because the disengagement gave us degrees of freedom in carrying out everyday security activities, which we never had before."

For a moment he sounds like Sharon: "Yesterday we took the head of the Hamas in Nablus out of his home and arrested him. In an action by a military unit, of course. The day before yesterday we carried out a targeted interception in Gaza. The day before that we did another targeted interception. Not a critical remark, not a hint of a critical remark, has come from anywhere in the world."

In the West Bank, too, "We will keep all the security options and we will not give up a single one of them." Olmert talks a lot about the security responsibility that has been placed on his shoulders as acting prime minister. In internal discussions with the security establishment he has two principles: The supremacy of the government level and the derivation of measures on the ground from a clearly formulated strategy. He is not enthusiastic about proposals raised by the IDF and the defense minister, after the rise of the Hamas, to cut the Gaza Strip off from the Israeli economy and infrastructure.

"I would not put tactical moves before strategic understanding. First of all I would reach an understanding about our goals. The option of cutting Gaza off from Judea and Samaria exists, but implementing it, if there is a need to do so, is a function of the outline we will want to follow."

'Olmert or Hamas?'

Olmert looks tired. Again and again he rubs his eyes with his fists. On the wall hang pictures of President Moshe Katsav and Sharon. But when we asked him to speak about personal example, about leaders he admires, he spoke mostly about Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin.

"Shamir and Begin belong to the generation of founders, the generation of survivors," he said. "I have formative memories of them. I hope that I am equal to them in my love of the people and love of the land. From Begin I learned the tremendous importance of preferring the unity of the people over everything else. From Shamir I learned how to be able to weigh and decide in a totally cool-headed way in the most difficult situations. This, incidentally, is something that Sharon excelled at. In the absence of this quality, other leaders look today like people unworthy of serving as prime minister."

Netanyahu has compared your economic record as mayor of Jerusalem to his own as finance minister.

"When I was mayor and he was prime minister," said Olmert, "he went around everywhere saying that I was the best mayor there has ever been. Not just in Jerusalem. Altogether."

We wanted to ask another question or two about Netanyahu (after all, Olmert endorsed him for prime minister twice, in 1996 and 1999), but it was important for Olmert to say something about Netanyahu.

"What worries me much more is what they are doing with me and Hamas. Years ago, Bibi somehow tried to extricate himself from the responsibility they tried to attribute to him, unjustly, for Rabin's assassination, because of that rally where there was the picture of Rabin in SS uniform and because of the creation of an atmosphere of incitement and fright that he encouraged and nurtured. I thought that after that he would learn a lesson. Today they are saying that Olmert is Hamas. Olmert is Hamas?"

What annoyed Olmert was a broadcast on the unofficial Likud Internet site, "Likudnik," in which he was depicted as a Hamasnik with a green hat, alongside Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. It is doubtful that Netanyahu was connected to this broadcast, but Olmert does not miss an opportunity: "To show a picture of me in a Hamas hat? What is this supposed to signal to the young voter from the hilltop youth, who hears that the leader of the Likud says that Olmert is a Hamasnik? After all, we know what needs to be done to Hamas."

(The Likud responds that Olmert knows Likudnik is a private Internet site, that it is not connected to the Likud or to Netanyahu, and that therefore his remarks are baseless.)

The idea, raised recently, that the Labor Party and the Likud will establish a coalition with support from the extreme right in order to block Kadima upsets Olmert's equilibrium.

"I can understand their desperation, their distress," he says. "These are distorted dreams, and if they come true they will endanger the health of our public life. One thing is clear: A perverted coalition like that is built on the fact that this government will do nothing and it has only one purpose: to block a government that will do a great deal."

About the coalition he is putting together in his mind, he says nothing, apart from a general remark to the effect that he does not disqualify "any Jewish and Zionist party." He does not pay lip service to the Arab parties - "It isn't practical," he says curtly. "I don't want to play around. They will not be in the coalition."

He is not acting the way Sharon did on the eve of the 2003 elections, when he declared that he would leave the defense portfolio in the hands of Shaul Mofaz. Olmert prefers to keep all the coalition cards in his own hands. Apart from the education portfolio, which is earmarked for Prof. Uriel Reichman, as Sharon promised, everything is open to negotiation. He is also not prepared to say who will be deputy prime minister if he is elected prime minister. In the past it was reported that Foreign Minister and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is slated for the position, but Olmert refuses to relate to this.

As far as he is concerned, let them sweat. It makes sense. If Kadima wins more than 40 Knesset seats, Olmert can distribute largesse to everyone. If it gets fewer than 35, he will have to pay quite a bit for the coalition he forms. He does not even hint at this, but it is evident that he would prefer to see the Likud without Netanyahu.

He calls Kadima, the party that Sharon bequeathed him, "the Israel all-stars."

"We've taken from Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Petah Tikva and Bnei Sakhnin (not really, as everyone remembers there are no Arabs on the Kadima list), and in this way we have built the most impressive team that has ever contended for the government of the state of Israel," he says enthusiastically. "Kadima carries a message of government stability and anyone who wants stability, and anyone who doesn't want a system that is frequently subject to extortion by the small parties, must vote for Kadima."

The mention of Amir Peretz's name does not elicit quantities of venom, as Netanyahu's does. Perhaps this is a signal about the structure of the next coalition. In the matter of raising the minimum wage, the Labor Party's main banner in the campaign advertising broadcasts, Olmert is not prepared to surrender.

"It is irresponsible to talk in slogans about raising the minimum wage when the price is the loss of thousands of jobs. All the economists say this, apart from a small, radical, populist and socialist group that surrounds Peretz and has to be subjugated to his slogans."

The affair of Omri Sharon's diaries does not impress him. "What happened?" he says. "So he phoned me two or three times during the past year. So what?"

Sharon was never embarrassed to say that he enjoyed his position. Are you enjoying it?

"I have never been noted for false modesty," he says, "but to talk about enjoyment now seems premature to me. For example, I can't stay home with my wife now anymore and do what we liked to do; take in a movie on the spur of the moment, order a film and enjoy two hours. I can't go to Betar Jerusalem [soccer] games. The thought that Betar Jerusalem will beat Hapoel Tel Aviv at Bloomfield and I will have to see it at home is very uncomfortable for me."

You have the image of a wealthy individual - cigars, top lawyers, a person who has sold a home for $3 million.

"Why not eight?" he grouches. "The precise sum is 2.7, or more exactly, 2.69." He squirms uncomfortably in his chair. "I was never a top lawyer. I simply didn't have the time. I worked for 15 years as a lawyer, parallel to my work in the Knesset, because then the political system allowed this. My wife and I bought the apartment for $300,000 that I paid plus a $150,000 mortgage - and that is all my wealth. Twenty years later, at the age of 60, I sold the apartment. In the meantime I've paid off debts and I've helped my children. Like every Israeli family."

The family reveals a different Olmert. Gentler. His wife, Aliza, elicits superlatives from him. "My wife is unique," he says with excitement. "She engages in a million things, without publicity and without getting an agora for expenses. There are many institutions, for children at risk, for battered women, for culture and art, that exist only thanks to her."

What sort of prime minister's wife will she be?

"She has said: I am not going to be Hillary Clinton and I'm not going to be Sonia Peres."

Have you ever thought of resigning from political life?

"There was a possibility like that, on the eve of the establishment of the government (when Sharon informed Olmert that he was not going to be finance minister), but it worked out quickly. In any case," he says, "It is good if a candidate for prime minister has another option outside the world of politics. It's good for the internal balance and judgment."

What is your option?

"To be elected prime minister," he says, "or to coach Betar Jerusalem."

On January 5, the day after Sharon was hospitalized, the heads of the security establishment and the world of intelligence and espionage started to flock to Olmert's office on the second floor of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor in the government complex in Jerusalem, to bring him up to date on the most sensitive affairs of state. Even before then, he says, he knew quite a bit, because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had ordered the heads of the system to brief his deputy, Olmert, about everything. More correctly - almost everything.

There was one detail, he relates in answer to a question, that he did not know and that he found out only after he became acting prime minister and was briefed on absolutely all the secrets. Unfortunately, he is not telling what that secret was. "This was something I had an inkling of, but did not know, and now I know. But I will only be able to tell it a few decades from now," he says.

When he says that, one immediately thinks about nuclear matters. But it is not that, apparently. Is he referring to some deep state secret that is handed down only from prime minister to prime minister, a secret that has to do perhaps with the leader of a foreign country who served, or perhaps still serves, as an Israeli agent? Perhaps it has to do with an Israeli leader, past or present, who was involved in some matter or other? Olmert knows, and Olmert isn't telling.