Olmert: 'Israel Is Prepared for a Compromise' Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talks with Robert Siegel about his vision for peace and what it will take to get there.

Olmert: 'Israel Is Prepared for a Compromise'

Olmert: 'Israel Is Prepared for a Compromise'

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"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.

Israel, Palestinians to Resume Statehood Talks

Don Gonyea's story on the conference on 'All Things Considered'

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Uri Savir, who helped negotiate the Oslo Accord, on 'The Bryant Park Project'

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President Bush (center) greets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the beginning of the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Bush (center) greets Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the beginning of the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., on Tuesday.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Israeli and Palestinian representatives at a Mideast peace conference reached an agreement Tuesday to begin new negotiations toward the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

President Bush presented the joint statement from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to top officials from more than 40 countries, including Arab nations, attending the meeting in Annapolis, Md.

"In furtherance of the goal of two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace and security, we agree to immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty, resolving all outstanding issues, including all core issues, without exception, as specified in previous agreements," said the statement read by Bush.

Meeting Next Month

The document laid out a specific timetable for the negotiations, with the first meeting scheduled for Dec. 12. The statement said the negotiations will be "vigorous, ongoing and continuous," with a goal of reaching a deal by the end of 2008.

Permanent steering committees from each side will be set up to meet throughout the process. Olmert and Abbas also agreed to meet in person biweekly.

"We express our determination to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples; to usher in a new era of peace, based on freedom, security, justice, dignity, respect and mutual recognition; to propagate a culture of peace and nonviolence; to confront terrorism and incitement, whether committed by Palestinians or Israelis," the statement said.

"Today, Palestinians and Israelis each understand that helping the other to realize their aspirations is the key to realizing their own, and both require an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state," Bush said.

He said both sides need to do their part to make the process work.

The Palestinians "must show the world they understand that while the borders of a Palestinian state are important, the nature of a Palestinian state is just as important," Bush said.

The Israelis "must show the world that they are ready to ... bring an end to the occupation that began in 1967 through a negotiated settlement," he added.

International Support

According to the agreement, a steering committee would develop a joint work plan and establish and oversee the work of negotiation teams, to be headed by one lead representative from each party. The first session of the steering committee was scheduled for Dec. 12.

"We will not avoid any subject," Olmert said in his speech. "While this will be an extremely difficult process for many of us, it is nevertheless inevitable. I know it. Many of my people know it. We are ready for it."

He cautioned that the "memory of failures in the near and distant past weighs heavily on us."

"I am not overlooking any of these obstacles we are likely to encounter. I see them," he said.

Abbas noted in his speech that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority "must beg for peace from the other."

"Peace and freedom is a right for us, just as peace and security is a right for you and us," he said. "It is time for the circle of blood, violence and occupation to end. It is time for us to look at the future together with confidence and hope. It is time for this tortured land that has been called the land of love and peace to live up to its name," Abbas said.

The administration wanted the Saudis and other key Arab states at the conference to help the Palestinians and to show the Israelis that there is a prospect for a wider peace with the Arab world.

The idea of the meeting in Annapolis is to get enough international support for this latest effort and to help the Palestinians lay the groundwork for eventual statehood.

The European Union's Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner spoke in an interview Monday about the need for follow-up.

"After Annapolis, there will be an important pledging conference in Paris, where we Europeans, of course, will maintain our high levels of support to the Palestinians, but where we also want to see burden-sharing by our Arab friends," Ferrero-Waldner said.

She said the European Union and its member states together have given about $1.5 billion in aid to the Palestinians this year and are promising now to intensify efforts to build up Palestinian institutions, jumpstart the economy and keep encouraging Israelis to ease restrictions on the Palestinians.

"If there is no change on the ground, then the political process might get stuck," she said.

Just who will monitor all of this?

Ferrero-Waldner said the best option is the so-called quartet — the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia — a group that met Monday and will be part of the conference in Annapolis.

With reporting from NPR's Michele Kelemen and The Associated Press