By Gil Hoffman – April 16, 2018
The former prime minister reflects on the 2007 attack in Syria and hits back at his critics.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert has never been known for keeping his mouth shut.
In his 35 years in the Knesset, Jerusalem mayor’s office, cabinet ministries and as prime minister, he constantly fought vocally against his political rivals and critics, no matter where he and they were on the political map.
Olmert, 72, has also arguably been among Israel’s top defenders in the international media, lecturing around the world, and will be among the most controversial speakers at the Jerusalem Post Conference on April 29 in New York.
For the past decade, he has also fought a high-profile legal battle in which he has had both successes and failures that resulted in his serving 16 months of a 27-month sentence for fraud and bribery, culminating in his release last July. Along the way, Olmert did not hesitate to attack the legal establishment and the judge who convicted him.
In his new 896-page Hebrew book titled Ehud Olmert in First Person, which he wrote in prison, he holds back no punches, attacking dozens of people he has sparred with over the course of his career, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, former prime minister Ehud Barak, MK Tzipi Livni, his own former aides, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, former state comptrollers, American-Jewish leaders and even Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
The strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor With all that said, it must have been especially difficult for Olmert, of all people, to remain silent about the strike he ordered on a nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007.
But in an interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine at his Tel Aviv office, Olmert says he could have revealed the attack all along, at any point since the operation took place more than a decade ago.
Doing so might have helped him politically and legally, but he says he chose not to, because he puts the country first. He questions whether the current prime minister is now capable of the same self-sacrifice, facing similar legal battles and comparable security challenges.
“I might have been able to get the positive press I am getting now when I was prime minister by releasing information on the attack on Syria,” he says. “It was in my authority to do it.
Many told me it could be of great help to me at a crucial time.
But I felt this operation was so significant and dramatic that, in the context of what Israel has had to deal with since its creation, running to tell your friends was not right. It wouldn’t do justice to the pilots and the unknown fighters of the Mossad and the intelligence community for me to tell stories.”Since the publication of the details of the strike, politicians and intelligence agencies have been locked in a credit war. But not even his fiercest opponents deny the role of Olmert, who ordered the attack, even though he was still reeling from the initial Winograd Report’s criticism of his role as prime minister in the controversial Second Lebanon War.
“I knew the time would come when the glory everyone deserves would be shared,” he says. “Those who were against me politically did not change their mind due to the attack, and those who were in my favor are still in my favor. Others might think I deserve extra credit for not using it to my advantage for political or legal ends, which is not what people think others might do.”
Revealing key information about the operation, he says the threat of Syrian retaliation was real, and preparing for it was an extremely difficult challenge.
“The fact that so many top generals who never entered politics think it was one of the most dramatic operations in Israel’s history is because there were 600 Syrian missiles aimed at every strategic target in Israel, from the North to Eilat,” he says. “We took the risk that the immediate outcome of the operation would be an immediate attack by heavy missiles with one-ton warheads. We had to prepare for a war, without showing we were preparing for it. We had to maintain the appearance of normal life.”
The Syrian nuclear reactor was secretly being built by North Koreans in the desert of Syria’s northern Deir al-Zor province, which was later taken over by ISIS. Israel did not claim credit for the operation, in order to give Syrian President Bashar Assad enough plausible deniability to not respond to the attack, a strategy that proved successful.
It was first revealed by North Korean media because its nationals were killed. Since then, and until last month, it could be mentioned in Israeli media only with the addendum “according to foreign sources.”
Asked if it is possible that Iran has also built a secret reactor, perhaps with North Korean assistance, Olmert answers readily and decisively. “I don’t think Iran presently has a bomb,” he says. “I think we have to do everything to prevent them from having a bomb. We conducted open and clandestine operations when I was prime minister to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear capability. There are dramatic things Israel accomplished to cope with the threats that have been told and some that will never be told. I could have gotten credit for those operations, too, but the security of Israel is more important than my personal welfare. I never did anything that would have benefited me, even if it would have only appeared to harm Israel’s security.”
The implication throughout Olmert’s argument is that his behavior, which he describes as responsible and even selfless, is the opposite of what Netanyahu has done and would do in the future. In the interview and in his book, Olmert appears to simultaneously resent comparisons with the current prime minister and to beg for them.
Shortly after the operation in Syria, The Jerusalem Post wrote an exclusive report that Olmert had informed his opposition leader, Netanyahu, before it took place. The report, which came from an aide who later became a senior cabinet minister, was completely banned from publication by the IDF Censor.
Two days later, Netanyahu himself went on Channel 1’s nightly news and boasted that he “had been a partner in the matter from the first moment and gave full support.”
The censor had no way of stopping such confirmation of Israel’s role in the reactor’s destruction on live TV.
Olmert recalls that Netanyahu’s interview came on the night of a pre-Rosh Hashana toast held by Olmert’s Kadima Party. He theorizes that Netanyahu expected Olmert to take credit for the strike at the event and decided to reveal his own part in the operation.
“I don’t want to judge or accuse anyone,” he says. “But out of a combination of absentmindedness and irresponsibility, he talked more than he should have. I don’t think he was trying to steal credit. He probably thought I would expose it myself, because he thought I would be like him.
He thought I was going to expose it that night, and when I didn’t, he just hinted at it and he fell into a trap.”
When asked why he involved Netanyahu, whom he already despised then, Olmert says: “I didn’t consult with him. I informed him, in case there would be a war. I didn’t ask him what to do. I thought, as a former prime minister and as the head of the opposition, he should know – and for months he kept it a secret.”
The outrageous agreement with Iran Olmert’s bitterness toward his successor is revealed even more when he is asked whether he believes Netanyahu would have attacked the Syrian reactor, had he been in power, and whether he thinks the prime minister would attack Iran, if it could stop the Islamic Republic from getting the bomb.
“Bibi has threatened Iran and, by doing so, damaged the ability of American allies to unite,” he says. “I don’t know whether he would have done what I did in Syria. Based on his performance, he would be more in line to share it with the public. Thank God, he didn’t attack Iran. That would have caused dramatic damage to the State of Israel.”
Ahead of the May 12 deadline that US President Donald Trump’s administration set for fixing or nixing the international community’s nuclear deal with Iran, Olmert expresses full confidence in Trump. He does not adopt the theory promoted by American deal negotiator Wendy Sherman and others that Trump will pull out of the deal, Iran will move full speed ahead toward the bomb, and then Trump will abandon Israel to deal with the threat on its own.
“If America pulls out of the outrageous agreement, the expected follow-up will not be Trump saying ‘I’m out’ but that Trump would be in favor of more effective measures,” Olmert says. “He is an unconventional president, but it’s unlikely that he’d do one thing and the opposite at the same time.” While Netanyahu enjoys a very positive relationship with Trump, Olmert is quick to remind the public that he, Olmert, likewise had close ties with then- US president George W. Bush. Although Bush did not accept Olmert’s request for the US to attack the Syrian reactor, Olmert recalls him being very cooperative in other key ways to maintain Israel’s security.
“In coordination with America, we did many things that were very effective, and that’s why, to this day, Iran doesn’t possess nuclear weapons,” Olmert says.
“The question is what to do and who should do it. I haven’t changed my attitude that things must be done, and we must have a working assumption that Iran means to obtain nuclear power. I think the way to deal with it is not an outright Israeli attack on Iran. There is plenty that can and must be done.”
Contrasting Syria with Iran, he says that with Syria, it was a matter of months before the nuclear reactor would become hot. To attack after it had become hot would have entailed environmental damage causing mass casualties. But with Iran, there is still time.
“The question is what can be done, and who should do it,” he reiterates. “Israel cannot do the greatest damage. It would be better to coordinate with international forces. Israel doesn’t have to be at the forefront. It can be a motivator, but not assume responsibility to do what others can do much better.”
That message is clearly intended for Netanyahu, who in the past sparred with the security officials Olmert had appointed over whether to attack Iran.
For Netanyahu to make a key decision on Iran in the future, he would likely have to emerge unscathed legally and politically from his current investigations.
Olmert and Netanyahu The political satire show Eretz Nehederet recently aired a skit in which Netanyahu and Olmert are interviewed about their legal troubles simultaneously, saying the exact same words bashing the legal establishment, except that one claimed to be targeted for being right-wing, and the other for being left-wing.
Olmert did not like the skit.
“I don’t want to draw comparisons between him and me, how he addresses people, what I said and didn’t say,” Olmert says, deliberately drawing the comparison he says he doesn’t want to draw. “I have many opinions about Netanyahu that are far from complimentary about his behavior, his performance as prime minister, and his involvement of his family in crucial issues, but I don’t wish him to go through the pains and trials and tribulations I have been through. I don’t wish him anything bad.”
But Olmert does not hide that he believes Netanyahu must resign due to his multiple criminal investigations. Olmert stepped down from the premiership in September 2008. Two weeks after police recommended he be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, he announced his intention to resign. Police recommended an indictment on the same charges against Netanyahu on February 13, but Netanyahu has proclaimed his innocence and remained in office.
“My suggestion to Netanyahu is to do what needs to be done to preserve the dignity and respect the status of the Israeli prime minister,” Olmert says.
“He should do the right thing, based on what he and his family and attorneys know about his cases, and do it in a way that will not compromise the dignity of the Prime Minister’s Office and himself as prime minister.”
Olmert denies reports over the past decade that he was forced to resign by Barak, who headed his largest coalition partner, Labor, and by Livni, his No.2 in Kadima, of whom he wrote in his book that he never saw as a real threat.
“I never compromised the status of the prime minister,” Olmert says.
“When I saw [that] the allegations against me would interfere with my performance, I resigned. I wasn’t forced. There was no problem for me to continue to serve with a stable coalition for two more years. But I decided I didn’t want to put myself in a position where the national interests of Israel were affected by my investigations.”
When asked whether Barak would have let him keep his job after he called upon him to resign, Olmert criticized him, saying that when Barak was prime minister, “he couldn’t manage the country, even though he did not have investigations.”
In his book, Olmert describes the night he was leaked news that Barak was going to call upon him to resign the following day. Barak denied the move, even though journalist Ayala Hasson heard him plan it on a phone that was not properly hung up.
Barak sat in Olmert’s office at a security meeting with a face Olmert describes as smug. When Barak asked to meet the prime minister personally afterward, “to tell him something that would be hard to say due to their friendship,” Olmert writes, he told him to go to hell.
Peace with the Palestinians In the book, Olmert writes at length about his efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians, confirming repeatedly contested Post reports that he offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas 100% of the area of the West Bank, via land swaps, including a passageway between the West Bank and Gaza.
Olmert blames his inability to complete a peace deal on the investigations that stopped him, and he blames those on right-wing Jews in Israel and the United States.
“Right-wing extremists feared my peace plan,” Olmert writes. “I don’t know if anyone thought of harming me physically but, rather, to embroil me in criminal investigations, neutralize my political power, ruin my priorities, undermine my status, and cooperate with anyone possible in Israel and abroad, from outside and inside my government.”
He cites in the next sentence two very wealthy Jews who were once close to him, one of whom is well known, who spent many millions on what he calls “a relentless struggle to topple me.”
He then recalls a February 17, 2008, report by Channel 2 journalist Sivan Rahav-Meir about a businessman who in a taped conversation offered $1 million to bring Olmert down.
In the interview, Olmert complains that Rahav-Meir says in the report that she has more tapes, but she has not agreed to give them to him to aid his own private investigation of who brought him down. In both the interview and the book, he blames Rahav-Meir’s ties to “settlers and right-wingers.”
In an email to the Post, Rahav-Meir denied the allegations.
“This is, of course, incorrect,” she wrote. “Why would I not broadcast everything I received? I wish Olmert a happy holiday.”
The Post also did not escape Olmert’s wrath. A week before Rahav-Meir’s report, then-Post Palestinian affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh reported exclusively that Olmert was negotiating the fate of Jerusalem behind the back of Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who had repeatedly declared that he would leave Olmert’s coalition if that happened.
When the report was published, a Post reporter sat and translated it, word by word, for Yishai, who does not speak English, and Yishai protested to Olmert. The following day, Olmert expressed his frustration about the Post report in the Knesset cafeteria, which he rarely entered when he was prime minister. His entrance that day was seen as a veiled way to take credit for that day’s assassination of Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyeh.
“I may have been upset that it was exposed, because I didn’t want the public to know that Eli Yishai knows that I was talking about places,” Olmert says in the interview, before denying that Arab neighborhoods he negotiated to relinquish are really part of Jerusalem.
Olmert boasts that when he realized he was wrong about those neighborhoods, after saying countless times in his decade as mayor that the city would never be divided, he faced the public and admitted it.
But he says leading American Jews tried to stymie the plan, citing, for instance, former US State Department official Elliott Abrams.
“One of Israel’s biggest problems is the stance of many American Jews,” Olmert writes in the paragraph about Abrams. “They love the state, but they have moved more to the extreme Right over time.”
In the interview, he went further in his criticism of those who slam his policies from afar, saying that “major right-wing people caused me to lose power” and singling out Sheldon Adelson, the publisher of the Israel Hayom newspaper, who he says spent $1 billion on a newspaper intended to topple him.
“I am not impressed by those who boo me from [a distance of] thousands of kilometers, some of whom haven’t visited, and none of whom would fight for Israel for the stupid policies they support,” he says. “I was willing to give up what was mine and has been for 3,000 years, because we have to compromise to make peace.”
Olmert says he can also handle booing up close and personal, which has happened to him at past Jerusalem Post conferences. He says he would not mind if that happened again.
“If the crowd at the Jerusalem Post Conference boos me, I will accept it with love,” he says.
“No one can question my loyalty to Israel’s security or cast any doubt about my ability to deal with threats to Israel. They can boo me, but show me one Israeli leader who did it better than me. Not the fast-talker in English, who talked and did much less. I did it in the north and south. When it was time to destroy dangers Israel faced, I did it more rapidly and successfully than anyone else, and I didn’t talk. And when it came to making peace, I was also more effective than my predecessors. If someone wants to boo me for this, I am proud of what I did.”