"Israel is committed to peace. Israel is prepared for a compromise," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told NPR after Tuesday's Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas pledged during the conference Tuesday to work toward an agreement by the end of next year that would create a Palestinian state.
Robert Siegel talked afterward with the Israeli prime minister about his vision for peace and what it will take to get there. (The Palestinian president and the Palestinian prime minister declined requests to be interviewed.)
Prime Minister Olmert, in your address today, you spoke of coming negotiations, and you said, "We will not avoid any subject. And while this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable." Are you prepared, at some point over the next year, if you hear the right concessions and negotiations, to go before the Israeli public and say it's time to withdraw from the West Bank, for the Palestinians to have a capital in East Jerusalem, and for us to make peace on terms acceptable to Mr. Abbas?
Mr. Siegel, what you actually propose is that instead of waiting and going through the motions to negotiate with the Palestinians and come to the necessary conclusions, that I'll start it by making an announcement right now in your program and disclose the whole thing. I think it's a little bit too early, but I still don't want to avoid your question.
I said it in the past. When it was not very comfortable politically for me, I said things which lots of people didn't like, some of them may have liked. I said my beliefs, my truth and my convictions, and that's how I am going to continue to do in the future. What exactly we will agree with the Palestinians remains to be seen. As I said, I believe that if we are serious in our mutual attempt to make peace, that will require painful compromises from both sides — the Palestinians and the Israelis. And if we reach that stage, and if we will make an agreement, then of course I will come to the Israeli public and I will share with the Israeli public everything, because I live in a democracy. Israel is a democracy.
I didn't ask you about a Palestinian right of return to Israel. I assume that's a compromise you expect the other side to make at some point in these negotiations. But territorial compromise obviously is going to be on the table for you over the coming year?
That's definitely true. I think it's not new. We have said it many times in the past that we are prepared to make a territorial compromise, even a painful territorial compromise. Exactly what shape it will take, what will be the exact borders and so on — this is something we have to leave for negotiations, and this is too early to say.
What do you say to people who look at this conference in Annapolis today and say, we have a Palestinian president who has lost control of the Gaza Strip, we have an Israeli prime minister with low approval ratings, we have an American president in the last year of his presidency — we don't have three strong political leaders here prepared to make the important compromises.
You know, politicians are strong to the extent that they are ready to take serious decisions and fight for it. And in this respect, I think that we will be measured not by the ratings, but by the courage that we are prepared to manifest in pursuing the fulfillment of our national goals. That was my belief, and I think that we have a long way to go, but nothing will deter me from moving forward in this direction, and I want to believe that nothing will deter President Mahmoud Abbas.
But how can you negotiate an agreement with President Abbas if he doesn't have control of the Gaza Strip?
At the end of the day, of course, Gaza will have to be part, not only of the agreement, but also of the implementation. In other words, if everything is subject to the implementation of the Road Map commitments, then the implementation of the Road Map commitments with regard to Gaza means that Gaza will have to be terror-free, and that will be incumbent on the Palestinians to carry out.
The reason that we are moving on this pattern is that we are first going to negotiate the political horizons, the essential elements that may help create a two-state solution. Implementation will be subject – of this dream, of this solution — will be subject to the implementation of the Road Map commitments. So there is a long way. We are not trying to suggest that it can be done within a week or within a year, but you have to start somewhere. And we are committed, absolutely, to help start it. We don't want to waste time; we don't want to gain time; we want to move forward.
But isn't it a fair observation that various groups of Israelis and Palestinians, official and otherwise, have been going off for years and figuring out what a solution is supposed to look like, what the final settlement is to be. The whole problem is implementation, isn't it?
No, it's a very important part, of course, of the program. But first and foremost, it's the understanding of what is the solution. And I don't know that until now, there was an agreed pattern of solution between the leaderships. There were volunteers from our side, from their side. There were all kinds of self-appointed messengers that were meeting with each other, which is natural; it happens. But it is incumbent on the leaderships, on those who hold the formal responsibility for their people, those who represent their countries. This is what I am doing. This is what Mahmoud Abbas is doing. We have to sit down and negotiate and reach an agreement, and that is what we are trying to do now.
Are there steps to be taken now by both sides as demonstrations of commitment to this process? For example, for you, is it time to dismantle outposts, illegal outposts, outside West Bank settlements as a demonstration of commitment to the process?
It's part of the Road Map commitments. And I say today, as you will read in my speech, that we will accomplish all of our commitments of the Road Map.
Conditionally, after the Palestinians have done other things? Or can you go home and say, here is a step that we have to start taking right now?
I'm not holding the negotiations with you. I think I made it clear.
You're not going to negotiate with me in Washington.
So I don't now put conditions; I don't make conditions; I don't create unnecessary obstacles. There are parts that we have to accomplish; we will accomplish. There are parts that they have to accomplish; they will have to accomplish.
I appreciate your not wanting to negotiate with me here in Washington, D.C. Are you negotiating with President Abbas at this point? And are there real, concrete discussions about what should happen now?
I'm talking with President Abbas. We started to talk a few months ago on a regular basis – very interesting, very revealing discussions which led us into what happened today. So this is a landmark; this is not an end of the process, but we started to negotiate before and we made a commitment today to carry on these negotiations on a regular basis, continuously, in order to try and reach an agreement within a year. I don't know that we will succeed to do it, but we will definitely and seriously and genuinely try.
Last point – there are some people who feel that if this process fails and that if you stumble and the talks break down that things would be still worse in the region than they are right now. True? Do you believe that?
Maybe, maybe. I hope that we will not fail, but, of course, failing is always bad. What motivated me is the realization is that if you will not do anything, then things will get worse anyway. So if things will get worse if you don't do, and there is a danger that things will get worse if you will do, do and try to make it better so that things will improve. And that's what we are trying to do.
Israel is committed to peace. Israel is prepared for a compromise. The majority of Israelis understand this compromise will be serious, will be meaningful, and will be painful. And our desire for peace and the end of terror and the build-up of new relationships with our neighbors is so fundamental in the hearts of Israelis that we are ready to go a long way in order to achieve it.