It’s significant when a former prime minister joins the protests against a sitting government.
Ehud Olmert served as prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2008. In recent weeks, he’s joined the hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters out on the streets revolting against the illiberal government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This moment, he says, is different from previous political crises that Israel has faced. “If you love Israel, you have to spell it out in the bluntest possible manner against the government of Israel. I’ll tell you why: because the government of Israel is the enemy of the state of Israel,” he told Vox.
Netanyahu and the settlers in his coalition, notably Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, represent the most extreme far right of Israeli politics. The new government is pushing forward radical changes to the Israeli judiciary and to the governance of the occupied West Bank that may be irreparable. Olmert says that Netanyahu, who is under investigation for corruption, is using government initiatives to protect himself and bolster his coalition’s interests.
Olmert understands the stakes of Israel’s current crisis point better than most. He, like Netanyahu, faced a court trial for corruption allegations and was convicted of graft. Olmert spent 16 months in prison. Some argue that his own actions contributed to current trends and the deterioration of Israeli rule of law. Olmert points out that, unlike Netanyahu, he resigned from the premiership and decided to defend himself as a private citizen.
For Olmert, American leadership is needed in response to the Netanyahu government’s efforts. He wishes that President “Joe Biden will step up, sooner than later, and will say he wants to reassess the relations between America and Israel on the basis of the changes which the Israelis took.”
Olmert is no dove, but he emphasized an element of the Israeli government’s radical policies that haven’t been a major focus of the protests: escalatory actions in the West Bank and the oppression of Palestinians.
He decries terrorism and denounced Palestinian militant organizations, but didn’t hesitate to call the recent settler rampage against the Palestinian village of Huwara, after two Israeli settlers were murdered, a pogrom. “I can’t sleep at night thinking that my people, my country, my citizens were committing this,” Olmert said. “I blame the government for inciting against Palestinians.”
He strongly believes that Israel cannot survive without an independent Palestinian state alongside it, the contours of which he negotiated with Palestinian Liberation Organization head Mahmoud Abbas but that ultimately went nowhere. Olmert served as mayor of Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, during the early 2000s. Just before President Barack Obama took office, Olmert was serving as caretaker prime minister and launched the destructive Operation Cast Lead on Gaza that killed about 1,400 Palestinians, many of them civilians.
“We can’t afford to continue to live under circumstances where there are millions of people without rights which we occupy without giving them the basic elementary rights that they deserve. It’s as simple as day,” he told me. “I feel that we’re coming close to the point where Israel will be perceived as an apartheid country.”
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So many Israelis are saying that democracy is in peril. How did we get here?
The Likud [Party], after many years, was outside of government at the time when the prime minister, Netanyahu, was under indictment and legal process in the district court in Jerusalem. And once they returned back into a position of government, they decided to change the government system of Israel in a way which is seriously jeopardizing the stability of our democratic system.
They want, first, to change the process of selecting the judges, particularly Supreme Court judges, and to practically make the Supreme Court of the State of Israel a branch of Likud [or whoever is in power], where a majority of government members select the judges according to their political affiliations. This in itself is a serious threat to the stability of our system.
Number two is to forbid the Supreme Court from canceling illegal legislation or to empower the Knesset to overrule the Supreme Court’s decisions by a majority of one member. In your system in America, if the president vetoes legislation of the Congress, it requires two-thirds of the Congress to overpower the veto of the president. What they want to do is have a vote of 61 members, which is a majority of one vote, to cancel decisions of the Supreme Court.
What they are trying to do is to give the government absolute power, and also to legislate that the religious, ultra-orthodox community will entertain special privileges that will not be subject to the rulings of the courts in Israel. This will guarantee, at the same time, the total commitment of these parties to Likud, to keep them in power for as long as needed.
In short, this is an attempt to change the political system in Israel from a democratic system as it was. A democratic system is not the rule of the majority. The democratic system — and this is how I practiced in the 40 years that I was in the center of political life in the state of Israel — is the protection of the fundamental basic rights of minorities.
What about annexation of the occupied West Bank? How do this new government’s policies affect the Palestinians? It is not coming up in the protests as much, but it’s a big deal.
In my mind, this is the immediate, more urgent issue that we have to deal with. What we are doing in the territories is something which is going to devastate the life of our country sooner than most people think.
Already now, there was a pogrom — there is nothing else [to call it] but a pogrom — that was done to a Palestinian village, after possibly two guys from this village were killing two brothers [from a neighboring settlement].
I want to define my position on this in the clearest possible terms: I always fought against terror in all of my different capacities. When I was mayor of Jerusalem, when I was prime minister, I never hesitated to take the harshest possible measures against terrorists when they endangered the lives of innocent Israelis. No one has faced the terrible pain of terror more than I did when I was mayor of Jerusalem in the years of the Second Intifada.
But terror doesn’t give anyone the permission to commit pogroms against innocent people the way they were doing it, only two weeks ago, under the eyes and the noses of the Israeli police and the Israeli government, with the encouragement of the ministers whose responsibility is to be in charge of protecting them.
Here, there were 400 Israelis, 400 civilians, that went into the village, then burned it down from top to bottom. I mean, this is a pogrom. This is a shame. I can’t sleep at night thinking that my people, my country, my citizens were committing this. And instead of fighting it, the minister of finance [Bezalel Smotrich] says, I want them to be burned down, and members of Knesset for his party openly support this attitude. This is something terrible now. [Smotrich later apologized for saying Huwara should be “wiped out.”]
I blame the government for inciting against Palestinians, with the knowledge that the outcome of this incitement will be terror, and will be maybe a confrontation over the Temple Mount in the next few weeks during Ramadan.
They are already prepared to legislate laws that will give authority to the government to expel Palestinians from the territories, to outside of the border, to Syria or I don’t know where, because of their terrorist activities. This is really a big mess. And this is coming close to our doorstep. And the government is fully aware of this and is doing nothing to prevent it.
What happens to American Jews in this equation? This seems to be the moment where they’re splitting from Israel.
I’ll tell you something I never said before in my life. I’m not a young guy, I’m an old person, I’ve been through 40 years in the center of political life.
And I say, whoever loves the state of Israel has to act publicly, strongly, and aggressively against the Israeli government. If you love Israel, you have to spell it out in the bluntest possible manner against the government of Israel.
I’ll tell you why: because the government of Israel is the enemy of the state of Israel. And if you want to support the state of Israel, you have to act against the enemy of the state of Israel, and the enemy of the state of Israel is a government made up of thugs and terrorists and chauvinists and nationalists and brutal people, as they are.
In 2007, when you were coming back from the Annapolis talks with the Palestinians, you said, “The day will come when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights,” and that, “as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”
Are we there now with this government of Netanyahu and Ben Gvir? Is this what they represent?
The fifth of December, 2003, which is more than 19 years ago, I gave an interview on a Friday, in which I said, we have come close to the point where we’ll have to make a choice between two different options.
One option is to pull out from all of the territories … I say this is one direction which will save Israel from great troubles, and which will change, in time, the situation; [it] will allow a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, which will change completely the status of Israel and the balance in the Middle East for the better.
The alternative is to occupy all the territories, to deprive the Palestinians sitting in the territories of human rights, to deny them the right which we always ask for ourselves, of self-determination. And to actually make Israel look like South Africa.
When I hear today that in the last few days in Washington, in New York, and in every part of America and in every part of Europe, Israelis and Jews are rioting and demonstrating against the Israeli government, I feel that we’re coming close to the point where Israel will be perceived as an apartheid country.
You’ve warned that without a two-state solution the situation will turn to apartheid. Do you think a Palestinian state is possible with the Netanyahu government?
I wish that a person I consider to be a friend of mine for many years, now-President of the United States of America Joe Biden, will step up, sooner than later, and will say he wants to reassess the relations between America and Israel on the basis of the changes which the Israelis took, that changed the nature of the state of Israel from a democratic country into a country that violates the human basic rights of its own citizens and of the citizens which are occupied by them, and which are denied the basic human rights which they deserve.
And that on the basis of this reassessment, he will take measures that will make life very painful and very, very difficult for those that believe that they can eat the cake and have it at the same time. If Biden loves the state of Israel, if Biden cares for the state of Israel, he has to step up and spell it out in the most explicit way against the Israeli government, because the government of Israel is also against the state of Israel.
What about Palestinians in Gaza? They don’t often come into the conversation. I know you were caretaker prime minister during Operation Cast Lead. Gaza had difficulty rebuilding after the Israeli attacks, and it’s continued to be a crisis there.
Don’t get me wrong. The fact that I say what I say about the government doesn’t mean that I think that the Palestinians should be awarded with any prize. Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and the terrorists in the territories of Judea and Samaria, all of them are doing every possible effort in order to prevent them from coming to some kind of a basis of momentum of negotiations with us. I never hesitated, when I was in different capacities and responsibilities, to take measures against terrorists and to kill them if it was necessary.
But you must understand something: I’m an Israeli, and when I say what I say, I say it because I care for the state of Israel. And this is in the interest of the state of Israel, to take these measures that I propose, not because I care for the Palestinians. I care for us.
And for the state of Israel, the only possible way to guarantee our future is to make an effort for a two-state solution, to pull out from the territories, and to have a smaller state.
We have enough power and enough strength and enough knowledge and enough sophistication and enough technologies and enough weapons to defend ourselves against possible terror coming from the territories that we will pull out from.
So when I say that we have to pull out from the territories, it’s not because I worry for the Palestinians.
I first of all worry for ourselves, because we can’t afford to continue to live under circumstances where there are millions of people without rights, which we occupy without giving them the basic elementary rights that they deserve. It’s as simple as day.
Pulling out of the territories will require a certain degree of risk that we will take. But we have the power to take these risks, and we’re going to benefit from pulling out from these territories because we will cease to be occupiers, and we will almost automatically win the support and the sympathies and the friendship of many of the Arab and Muslim countries across the world.