Olmert Believes Peace Is Possible; Former Israeli Prime Minister Speaks at Dartmouth College

Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Hanover — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted Tuesday that peace between Israel and Palestine, based on two autonomous states, holds the key to long-term peace in the Middle East.

I n a speech before an overflow crowd at Dartmouth College’s Cook Auditorium, Olmert also endorsed current efforts of the Obama administration and its Western allies to seek some accommodations with Iran over its nuclear capabilities, despite serious objections by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“An agreement between Israel and Palestine is the one thing that can help provide the backwind for a wider peace process in the Middle East,” Olmert said. “Israeli leaders need to get rid of this cloud and help deprived people of Palestine attain fundamental human rights. This is in the best long-term interest of Israel. Can it be done? I have no doubt.”

That statement triggered applause from the audience, although at the end of the speech about a dozen young people chanted protests before leaving the hall. Outside, they handed out leaflets stating that their protest was a “die-in” against Israel military operations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip when Olmert was prime minister between 2006 and 2009.

Olmert, 68, looking trim in a dark suit and red tie, displayed an experienced politician’s métier with flashes of humor and forceful right jabs at the air. He argued that, strategically, Israel is perhaps now in the best position to explore a serious peace initiative with the Palestinians.

“There is no real enemy in the south; Egypt has its own domestic problems and the last thing it wants is another war with Israel,” Olmert said. “In the north, Syria has its internal war and it will take years and years to recuperate. Hamas (the Palestine resistance organization in Gaza) is weaker than ever; even Egypt is against them. They might shoot rockets at us but Israel knows how to deal with that. Hezbollah (the Islamic militant group based in Lebanon) is well equipped, but it would be devastating for them to start something.”

Asked in an earlier luncheon with students why Israel seems reluctant to explore peace with the Palestinians, Olmert blamed what he termed a “failure of leadership” by Netanyahu.

“He believes in something very different from me,” he said. “He wants to keep the status quo forever and that is not tactical. Plus he is unable to compromise because 18 out of 20 members of the Likud (Israel’s major center-right party) would not support him.”

Olmert explained his differences with Netanyahu over the Iran negotiations.

“President Obama is trying to find out whether they (the new regime in Iran) are serious or not,” he said. “If not, we will find out. Until then, we owe it to the stability of entire world to find out if Iran is serious.”

The United States and its allies are attempting to secure an interim accord with Iran as the “first stage” in a diplomatic process that seeks to limit Tehran’s nuclear activities in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions.

Olmert said that he is optimistic that the so-called “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, despite recent setbacks, will not turn into “an Arab winter.”

“We have to look at these events with a certain patience and broader appreciation for the complex set of forces that created these events,” he explained. “This was for the most part a spontaneous expression of the people for better lives, opportunities … democracy will not come overnight.”

The Dartmouth speech, which attracted around 500 students, faculty and community members to the Cook auditorium and two adjacent overflow rooms, was sponsored by the Dickey Center for International Understanding and the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

During an earlier lunch with students, Olmert recalled that when he entered politics 40 years ago and won election to the Knesset as a member of the Likud party, he was much more rigid on issues concerning the Palestinians. Later, as mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years, he began to change his views.

“I realized that no matter how much money we might spend on schools and roads to help the Palestinians in the city, we would never achieve a lasting peace until they had their own autonomous state,” he said.

Olmert came to power as a leader in the newly formed centrist Kadima party after leaving the Likud party. His government actively engaged the Palestinians in peace negotiations. He resigned as Prime Minister in 2009. He has returned to politics in the past year and is currently on a speaking tour in the United States and other countries.

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