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Ehud, I’d have forgiven you for your sins if you’d made peace

But he’s a crook. That’s what I kept thinking during my 90-minute interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was jailed for fraud and bribery and released from prison a year ago.

But you’re a crook, I thought, as he told me how he’d have made peace with the Palestinians, giving them Arab areas of east Jerusalem as their capital while retaining everything “of significance to the Jewish people” in Israel’s capital. That sounds fair, I thought, but you’re a crook.

When he spoke about refugees, of giving Abbas a gesture (5,000) but no right of return, of how he’d have an international trust administer the holy sites so extremists couldn’t start a war, and of how he’d have settled for 4.4 percent territorial swaps, and I thought again: ‘That sounds reasonable, but you’re a crook.’

On Gaza, he said Israel needed to be brave and make the first move to help Gazans open up and trade with a deep-water port while retaining security checks to stop the weapons, and of how that would ensure the Strip’s stability and counter the extremism that desperation breeds, I could neither argue with his reasoning nor his suggestion that burning kites are not an existential threat to Israel, and that there may be better ways to deal with protesters than by snipers shooting them dead. Common sense, I thought. But you’re a convicted felon.

On the wars he oversaw as prime minister, he explained how his “disproportionate” response led to objections at the time but then to 12 years of “silence” on Israel’s border with Lebanon, of how Hezbollah “learnt a lesson” that day and how Iran was learning that same lesson now, and how that lesson – once learned – saves Israeli lives. I thought fine, good, but you’re a crook.

Then I heard him dismiss as “childish” those who argue against a peace deal because it won’t end terror, explaining why you never can guarantee it, and how a who a Palestinian approaching 60 “can’t remember not living under the gun of an Israeli soldier, not living without searching his body, his wife’s body, his children’s bodies… Bitterness has built up, almost naturally, and will not be wiped out overnight by some leader signing an agreement, but with Palestinian state, the positive energy that exists among most Palestinians will take over and change attitudes”. I heard those words, unprecedented from an Israeli right-wing leader, and liked it, still thinking: ‘But you’re a crook.’

He admitted mistakes and alleged an effort to get rid of him by rich American Jews, but refused to call for his nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu to be charged, despite all the allegations and testimony and investigations, wishing “nothing personal” on his foe despite Bibi having met the attorney-general eight times, whereas Olmert never did. It’s a question of ethics, said the crook.

Then he spoke about character and leadership, and how leaders risk their popularity and make concessions to achieve “something historic”, of how he believed the West Bank to be part of ‘Eretz Israel’ because if he didn’t he couldn’t concede it, and of how right-wingers now think he’s a “leftie” but he doesn’t care because leaders “know when to bang on the table and say this is what we need to do and we will do it”.

He spoke about inner strength and his face matched his words. He spoke about banging on the table and bang he did, with such force it shook my recorder. His stare was that of a man to make peace, to end 50 years of killing and terror and dread and taking other people’s land. He spoke of loving Israel, Jerusalem and the Jewish people, but said “we are not indifferent to the suffering of those who had to leave their homes”. This, he said, applied to both Jews and Arabs – all should be compensated, and he would have done so.

I heard those words and thought how much we need to hear them from an Israeli leader, and how I never had. Then I remembered how this crook came within a gnat’s whisker of peace with the Palestinians 10 years ago. ‘You’re a crook,’ I thought. ‘But I’d have forgiven you.’

About the Author
Stephen Oryszczuk is the Jewish News Foreign Editor
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