During an hour-long telephone interview, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert warned that time is running out to free the Israeli hostages in Gaza and urged President Joe Biden to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, to save them, Israel must start political talks with the Palestinians, "the sooner the better." Olmert called negotiations leading toward a two-state solution—a state for both Israel and the Palestinians—"the only possible avenue for a different Middle East."
It's a position admittedly without strong support among Israeli Jews after Hamas's terror attacks of October 7. According to a recent Gallup poll, only one in four Israelis support the creation of an independent Palestinian state, while 65 percent oppose it, a complete reversal of views a decade ago.
Olmert described his concerns about what he called Israel's growing isolation internationally and mounting internal opposition to the Netanyahu government's conduct of the war in Gaza. "If Israel does not provide a political horizon [with the Palestinians]," he said, "we're in deep shit."
Biden had "unique" credibility within Israel, Olmert asserted, due to his initial unwavering support for Israel's retaliation for Hamas's October 7 "atrocities"—the slaughter of 1,200 Israelis, including over 35 children, the seizing of hostages as young as eight months old, and the rape and brutalization of Israeli women. Biden's trip to Israel soon after the second-deadliest attack against Jews since the Holocaust and his backing of Israel's right to respond had "saved Bibi" and his government "in a time of great insecurity, instability, and fear," he said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. Because of that standing within Israel, Olmert asserted, Biden could afford to say things that the Israeli government would not like, but that most Israelis would be forced to accept.
He said that Biden's early unqualified endorsement of Israeli retaliation against Hamas and his deployment of two U.S. carrier groups off the Lebanese coast to warn Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah against escalating the conflict put him in a better position to make demands than any president before him—even former president Donald Trump. Trump was enormously popular in Israel for having recognized Jerusalem as the Jewish state's capital, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Syria's Golan Heights as part of Israel, and helping broker the Abraham Accords, under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan joined Egypt and Jordan in recognizing Israel. But the same political constraints now affecting Biden—concern about his personal popularity, the opposition of Arab-Americans in swing states like Michigan to support for Israel, and the opposition of many young voters to the ongoing Gaza military operations and the killing of Palestinian women and children—would likely constrain Trump. "I'm not certain I would put my faith in the friendship of Trump," Olmert said. "Trump was extremely friendly to Trump."
Olmert acknowledged that Hamas's barbarous attack had moved Israelis to the right and sparked rage against all Palestinians, not just Hamas or the 2.2 million in Gaza. But a "growing number" of Israelis, he noted, were beginning to ask, "'What's next? Will Israel continue to control Gaza with 3 million people and the West Bank with 4 million Palestinians forever? Will Israelis be occupiers forever, and deprive the Palestinians of rights forever?'"
Olmert maintained that, despite Israel's military prowess and its ability to inflict heavy damage on Hamas and its extensive tunnel network, more Israelis were beginning to believe that the war's goal, as recently articulated in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Netanyahu—that "Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarized, and Palestinian society must be deradicalized"—could not be achieved.
"We are not going to annihilate Hamas," Olmert argued, mainly for three reasons. The first is the fate of the hostages. Israelis, he believes are starting to understand that negotiations offer the only path for securing the hostages' release. Second is the "cost" in terms of Israeli soldiers' lives and as the conflict drags on. Israel, he said, has already lost over 170 soldiers. "The cost of the fighting" for the Israeli Defense Forces "is starting to be a major problem," he said. Third is the "growing impatience of the international community" in response to the daily photos of the deaths of over 20,000 Palestinians and the widespread destruction in Gaza. "The world is losing patience," he said.
Israel's status as the world's most economically impressive "start-up nation," its prosperity and technological success, paradoxically made the country ever more dependent on international support since it depends on access to international markets, supply chains, and foreign investment, he asserted.
In addition to embracing unachievable military goals, Olmert suggested, Netanyahu was also in a political bind. The prime minister has said that the Palestinian Authority, which governs Palestinians in the West Bank—or Judea and Samaria, as the Israeli government calls the territory—will have no role in demilitarizing Gaza or ensuring that that young Palestinians are not indoctrinated to hate Jews, as Hamas has indoctrinated them. But because Netanyahu formed a governing coalition in late 2022 with two hardline religious nationalists—Defense Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, both of whom oppose giving Palestinians a state or even self-rule on what they claim as God-given Jewish land—Netanyahu could not make a political deal with Palestinians to end the conflict without losing power. "For Bibi to accept a political solution is to accept his own political demise," Olmert said. As a result, he argued, "Bibi needs to be thrown out today because he is preventing a possible political process that is essential for a more stable region."
Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will not resign. And many Israelis believe that Olmert is in no position to demand that he do so, given his own conviction on corruption charges in 2014, for which he served 16 months in prison, the first former Israeli head of government to be sent to jail. But Olmert also came closer than most other Israeli leaders to sealing another political deal with the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. In 2008, he proposed ceding to the Palestinians almost 94 percent of the West Bank for the establishment of a de-militarized Palestinian state with no right of return for Palestinian refugees. Mahmoud Abbas, the now 88-year-old president of the Authority, rejected the proposal.
Olmert did not disagree with Netanyahu's claim that Israelis soldiers would have to remain in Gaza temporarily if a ceasefire were declared. But while Netanyahu argues that Israel must retain control of Gaza for the foreseeable future, Olmert maintains that Gaza must be stabilized by an international peacekeeping force—perhaps a force of Western nations under United Nations auspices, since Egypt and other moderate Arab states have stated they would not participate in such a force. When the conflict ends, he said, the U.S. or Egypt would have to broker talks with the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, too, he said, which before October 7 was negotiating with Israel over possible recognition, could play a useful role in rebuilding Gaza. But the Saudis have also demanded that progress be made toward giving Palestinians a state, and that Israel accept the Palestinian Authority as the ruling power in Gaza. Olmert believes that Netanyahu can agree to neither of these conditions, given his coalition government with Israeli hardliners.