Ehud Olmert has been the major of Jerusalem since 1993, when he defeated the renowned Teddy Kollek. Born in 1945 south of Haifa, he worked as a lawyer and newspaper columnist before entering Israel's parliament on the Likud slate as its youngest member in 1973. In 1988-92, he served as minister of health. Daniel Pipes interviewed him in New York City on October 14, 1997.
JEWS, CHRISTIANS, MUSLIMS
Middle East Quarterly: In your view, do all three of the major monotheistic religions have an equal religious claim to Jerusalem?
Ehud Olmert: No, there is a difference between them. There can be no comparison of the centrality of Jerusalem of Judaism on the one side and Christianity and Islam on the other.
Islam never considered Jerusalem to be the most important city; according to its traditions, Jerusalem is only third most important. The center of Islam is in Mecca; when Muslims pray, they turn their faces toward Mecca. When they stand at Al-Aqsa Mosque, by the way, they turn their backs on the Temple Mount. In addition, through the long history of Jerusalem, it never was, not for a moment, a capital of any Muslim or Arab political entity. For a time, during the early Muslim rule of Jerusalem, Ramla (a small town about 40 kilometers from Jerusalem) was made into the capital—precisely to avoid making Jerusalem the capital to make sure that it could not rival the status of Mecca.
MEQ: And Christianity?
Olmert: The most important and holy place for Christians in Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be the grave site of Jesus, and the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus walked. Jerusalem is undoubtedly an important place for Christianity.
MEQ: And Judaism?
Olmert: For us Jews, Jerusalem is everything. It is the center of Jewish history, the center of Jewish life, the center of the Jewish religion. Jerusalem represents the purist expression of all that Jews prayed for, dreamed of, cried for, and died for in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple. During those two millennia, every observant Jew prayed three times a day, at least, and mentioned Jerusalem in his every prayer, expecting that God in His great compassion would bring us one day back to Jerusalem.
MEQ: Should religious claims translate into political and territorial rights?
Olmert: Of course. Political rights do not emerge out of nothing. It's as simple as that. They follow from a context that has historical, religious, and political dimensions. What, after all, is the basis for the Palestinians' claim for Jerusalem to serve as their capital? If must be rooted in the past or it has no basis. Then, look at the specifics: what history does the Palestinian people actually have in Jerusalem?
MEQ: What about the rights of the Muslim population living in Jerusalem today?
Olmert: About 28 percent of the population living in Jerusalem today is Palestinian and I do not ignore this fact. At the same time, Jerusalem is hardly the first city to contain a national minority. No city with such a minority has been divided by ethnic lines, it's never happened. And Jerusalem will not be the first city to be so divided.
MEQ: Is it fair to say that the battle for Jerusalem largely consists of Jews and Muslims both trying to win Christian support for their positions? In other words, are Christians the decisive factor?
Olmert: That is a possible way of putting it, but not the most accurate for we will not let anyone determine this struggle. If anything, this fight was determined already three thousand years ago. Jerusalem is not a reality that we now want to create. Jerusalem is, was, and will forever remain our capital. Neither Christians nor anyone else will artificially or technically determine the outcome of this battle for us; we will determine it. We have the perseverance, the stamina, the strength of will, and the strength that derives from commitment.
Now, it is true that the Christian community is the most powerful politically in the world and as such, both of the two battling parties want to have it on their side. This is not just the case when it comes to Jerusalem; the same is true generally in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We want the countries mostly inhabited by Christians, such as the Europeans and Americans, to support us. By and large, I think they do. Again, though, this does not mean they will determine who prevails in Jerusalem.
THE EARTHLY CITY
MEQ: Are you worried about Jewish Jerusalem becoming a haredi city, a place where the ultra-Orthodox dominate?
Olmert: I am not worried. Yes, the haredim have a very impressive birth rate, but what people do not realize is that the largest emigration out of Jerusalem is by the haredim. The reason is economic: housing prices in Jerusalem are very high and the haredi community is the least capable financially. It therefore has to look for housing outside the city. This is precisely why such communities such as Betar, Kiryat Sefer, and Matituyahu have developed, as well as the haredi quarters in the towns of Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Gat, and Ashdod, and have developed so rapidly over the past three years.
MEQ: Might some of those suburban communities eventually be incorporated into Jerusalem proper?
Olmert: I doubt it very much.
MEQ: What about the economic prospects of Jerusalem, one of Israel's poorest cities?
Olmert: We are trying to improve them by making a concerted effort of the municipality and by the national government. Making a commitment to strengthen Jerusalem is not just a matter of local interest or the hope by a mayor of Jerusalem who wants to succeed at his job. It is an Israeli national priority of the highest order. To make sure that Jerusalem is strengthened—that people want to live there, that businesses move there—means giving them the right incentives. I think that we can and ultimately will do that.
The national government alone has the tools, the instruments to effect this change. It can decide, for instance, that from now on every new immigrant to Israel receives an additional grant should he decide to live in Jerusalem rather than some other place in the country. When that happens, you will see how many immigrants prefer Jerusalem. Similarly, if every new manufacturing plant built in Jerusalem gained an additional grant, you would see how many more are built in Jerusalem. It's a question of national priorities.
MEQ: The immigrants and factories will come despite Jerusalem's unresolved issues, despite the struggle now taking place for the future of the city?
Olmert: Yes, because, at the end of the day, there is no major political difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem suffers from suicide bombings, but so does Tel Aviv. More generally, someone unhappy about the situation in Jerusalem—and he may have a right to be unhappy—will find that the problems are not restricted to that city.
On the other hand, the advantages of living in Jerusalem—the wonderful weather, the wonderful air, the beautiful combination of old and new, the dynamism of its society, and the development of its economy and industry—are great incentives for people to come and live there.
MEQ: You are quoted as saying at the Ministerial Committee on Jerusalem Affairs, back on June 2, that thirty years after it was united, Jerusalem is as divided as it used to be, but without a wall. You called it "The Wild West, a place where everybody does as he pleases."1
Olmert: No, I don't think Jerusalem is as divided as ever. This city does have lots of problems, difficulties, complexities, and sensitivities. We have to work on solving them. It is part of our duty to try and find reasonable compromises. Its basic framework is the unity of the city and as the sole capital of the State of Israel. I think this can be done.
MEQ: You've repeatedly indicated that Jerusalem can't be the only place on earth where Jews are forbidden from buying property ...
Olmert: Or from building on their property.
MEQ: Correct. Given this point of view, do you acknowledge that the traditional neighborhoods in the city (and throughout the region) have a logic and a rationale that is important to maintain? That is, Jews living side-by-side with Arabs may not be a good idea?
Olmert: A lot of the argument about Jews and Arabs not able to live together is exaggerated. Whenever a Jew buys a property and wants to live alongside an Arab, it is said that this is a provocation, that Jews should not live next to Arabs. This lack of equal sensitivity to the rights of Jews really saddens me. It's time that we look at the crux of this problem and understand that, if the city is to remain united and the country is to remain in its present borders, there will be Arabs living next to Jews. Arabs are part of the city and are entitled to share in everything that the city has to offer; but politically, economically, and municipally, the city is one, it is a united and undivided city.
By the way, it works in reverse too: what will happen if Arabs in the State of Israel decide to buy properties and build houses within the Jewish settlements and live alongside Jews? What can we do?
MEQ: Clearly it's legal.
Olmert: Not only legal; do you believe that anyone would dare come out publicly and say "the Arabs cannot live here because this is a Jewish neighborhood?" There's not a single politician who would dare to say this. Why do they feel that they can say the opposite?
MEQ: Accepting that Arabs and Jews both have the right to live where they wish, do you respect the custom of segregated neighborhoods? Or would you prefer to see them broken up?
Olmert: I can't tell you that my dream is to find more Arabs living in Jerusalem. I hope there will not be more Arabs living in Jerusalem, because national differences have an impact on the way of life, the atmosphere, the relations between different populations. We already have enough problems in Jerusalem. Those who live in Jerusalem are entitled to live on an equal basis. We do not have the power and the authority to expel them from Jerusalem, but I am not looking for solutions that will bring more and more Arabs to the city. No, that I don't like.
MEQ: Let's assume there are a certain numbers of Arabs in Jerusalem. Without adding to or subtracting from their numbers, should they live side-by-side with Jews or segregated from them? Traditionally, Jerusalem has been segregated residentially, for example into the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish quarters; is that something you would like to end?
Olmert: It is not my first priority, but I am not afraid of it.
MEQ: But it appears the Arabs don't want to integrate. They prefer separate schools, separate stores, separate places to live.
Olmert: Again, this is not my first priority but I am not afraid that it may happen. If it happens, it happens.
MEQ: What then is your first priority?
Olmert: To make major investments in areas which have strategic importance for the future of Jerusalem. That is why I favored building a housing complex at Har Homa.
MEQ: Why is this project so important?
Olmert: It is a strategic project that will provide 7,000 more units to Jerusalem, making it a small city in itself, to help alleviate housing problems in the city. Thousands of kids are now living in the city without appropriate housing that they can buy. There is real interest, you see, for the building of Har Homa. In addition, the project stands at a very strategic location that will affect the future of Jerusalem.
MEQ: We have read that you visit the building project at Har Homa "at least once a week," where you reiterate the need to complete the work quickly. You are called "the real bulldozer at Har Homa"2 ...
Olmert: I don't have time to waste on finding new titles for myself. I need to work.
MEQ: In retrospect, was the decision to build there handled correctly?
Olmert: Absolutely. There was no other way but to build Har Homa than the way we did it. I am very happy that we built Har Homa. And I promise you that we will continue building Har Homa; the project will not be frozen.
MEQ: Please assess the overall impact of Irving Moscowitz's projects in Jerusalem; have they been beneficial?
Olmert: It's too early to assess its overall impact. They definitely have generated wild opposition from many different directions, locally and around the world, voices full of hatred, rage, and prejudice against the city of Jerusalem, against me, and against Irving Moscowitz personally.
MEQ: Does Dr. Moscowitz contribute financially to you?
Olmert: He has never given one penny for a political campaign of mine. He does not need to give me money to buy a right to own property in Jerusalem. That is a ridiculous idea. Further, were he to ask me how to use his money, I would tell him not to put it into my political campaign but to do exactly what he is doing—buying land in Jerusalem for habitation by Jews.
It strikes me as very hypocritical that any Israelis should criticize Dr. Moscowitz for doing just this. Did we not for many years invite diaspora Jews to buy land in our country and build Jerusalem? So why do we now condemn someone who in fact does precisely as we asked Jews to do all along?
MEQ: The Jerusalem Report calls you one of Dr. Moscowitz' "two closest advisors in Israel."3 Is that accurate?
Olmert: I have no idea what they're talking about. I never acted as an advisor of Irving Moscowitz, and I do not know anyone who considers himself an advisor to Dr. Moscowitz. I am not advising him but am doing my duty as the mayor of Jerusalem.
That said, I have a lot of respect for a man who is not just talking, but gives and invests and who in other ways proves that his mouth is where his pocket is.
MEQ: Just yesterday, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza published a report indicating that Palestinians have built 19,000 housing units in the Jerusalem area since the Oslo Accords were signed four years ago.4 Please comment.
Olmert: I am not sure I am familiar with this number, but I can tell you that it is nonsense to argue, as some completely ignorant and uniformed people do, that Arabs do not have enough place in Jerusalem because they were barred for many years from building houses. This is really ridiculous.
MEQ: What about the question of illegal housing? First, what is this—buildings put up without permits?
Olmert: That's right.
MEQ: Do the illegal buildings put up by Arabs have implications for the future of the city?
Olmert: Very much so. If these houses are not demolished, the city will eventually be divided. The construction of thousands of new buildings, particularly in strategic areas of the city, that may create irreversible facts on the ground.
MEQ: Are you in a position to demolish the illegal houses?
Olmert: I am and I do. I will continue to demolish them, even if the national government disagrees with this step, for this authority is entirely mine.
MEQ: Why do you wait until a house is built before demolishing it? Why don't you stop the building of a house before it's been put up?
Olmert: I can stop them right away, but if they violate the order to stop building, the only way to punish them is to reindict them. So, after five years they are reindicted.
MEQ: In the meantime they have built the house?
Olmert: Right, because according to Israeli law, once you issue an executive order to demolish a house, and the owners appeal, you can't destroy the house until after the appeal. In the meantime they continue to build, violating another order to stop the building work. But they know that nothing will happen to them as they continue to build.
MEQ: An Egyptian newspaper quotes you saying that long-term suspension of the peace process serves Israeli interests because this permits Israelis to "complete their settlement building projects."5 Is this in fact how you feel?
Olmert: I don't remember ever saying this, but we don't need any excuse to continue building where it is essential for us to build. I may have said that the Arabs may think that by suspending the talks they punish Israel, but then they discover they are in fact punishing themselves. I don't remember saying what you quoted but as you may now, the Arab press does not need facts on which to establish their arguments. They can very easily create the facts that suit them.
MEQ: Would you do the Hasmonean tunnel opening of a year ago differently if you could do it over?
Olmert: No, nothing we did should be changed, except that next time the prime minister has to make sure that the army is on the alert to prevent the reactions that caused the violence a year ago. Had the army been ready and in the right places, there would have been no violence against innocent people, as was in fact the case.
MEQ: You anticipated there would be violence?
Olmert: I did not anticipate it, but it was not my duty as mayor to anticipate it, for the mayor has no authority over the security services. I am not a psychic, just a political figure.
MEQ: Sa'ib 'Urayqat, one of Arafat's top assistants, said about the tunnel incident: "When Israeli governments find themselves facing domestic crises, whether resulting from corruption, breach of trust, or bribery, they try to divert attention. This is what took place with Ehud Olmert when he was accused of bribery. He had no other choice but to order the opening of the Jerusalem tunnel to divert attention from what was taking place in the courts."6 Please comment.
Olmert: This is really not worthy of comment. I was indicted for arranging for the party to get illegal contributions and was absolutely, unequivocally acquitted in the district court of Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, so I am entirely cleared of any trace of criminal activity. By the way, I was never accused of any personal misuse of public funds. This argument is typical of the Arab thinking; it's a clear case of mental projection. It's ascribing to me precisely the way that Arafat and his aides deal with problems.
MEQ: You indicated soon after your election as mayor a preference to negotiate the status of Jerusalem sooner rather than late—jumping to the final status talks. Do you still feel that way?
Olmert: Yes, but now it's too late. I offered it three years ago when we were still at the initial stages of implementing Oslo. My reasoning was simple: if we leave the Jerusalem issue to the last, we might find ourselves inviting the international community to squeeze us to make concessions in Jerusalem. As it happened, we have already reached almost the last stage of the negotiating process, so there is not much that Israel can do now. The city now has to be negotiated anyway.
MEQ: What is your preferred long-term solution to the dispute over Jerusalem?
Olmert: The solution that was elaborated three thousand years ago: Jerusalem as one city, a united city, the capital of Israel, period. What other kind of solution can there be?
MEQ: Does this vision include some kind of autonomy for the Arabs of Jerusalem?
Olmert: Autonomy? No. But freedom, yes.
MEQ: No special dispensations or communal rights for the Arab residents?
Olmert: Nothing beyond personal freedom. They are entitled to exercise all the rights of free citizens in a democratic society. They will have individual rights, just as every Jew has individual rights. Neither Jews nor Arabs have any special communal rights in Jerusalem.
MEQ: Yossi Beilin and Abu Mazen reached an agreement with three main components. Palestinians would build a government center in the district of Abu Dis and call in "Al-Quds," Arabic for Jerusalem. Western Jerusalem would be Israeli. Eastern Jerusalem would remain in dispute but in the meantime remain under Israeli control. The Temple Mount would remain under Arab control. What do you think of this agreement?
Olmert: This is a stupid plan, reckless and irresponsible. It talks about placing parts of Jerusalem under the full sovereignty of the Palestinians, including some of the Christian holy sites. Can you imagine the Jews giving Muslims—and which Muslims? the PLO?—rights over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most sacred place for Christians in Jerusalem? What stupidity!
MEQ: And the notion of Abu Dis becoming the Palestinian capital; any value to that idea?
Olmert: It is ridiculous. Those people who talk of this plan think that Arabs will accept a solution that keeps them outside of the real Jerusalem. If they were ready for it, it would be a different question, but I very much doubt that.
MEQ: You are saying the Abu Dis resembles the old "Jordan is Palestine" campaign—offering the Palestinians something they don't particularly want, in the hopes of getting them off Israel's case?
Olmert: Yes. They might take what's offered them, but it would not satisfy them for long.
MEQ: Is it fair to characterize official American policy toward Jerusalem as frozen in time? That is, it still calls for the internationalization of the city, it refuses to recognize Israeli control of the eastern part, and it keeps the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Olmert: Regrettably, official American policy has progressed neither with actual developments nor with the outlook of most Americans.
MEQ: Why not?
Olmert: This is something that Americans can perhaps explain better that me. I can only note that if Congress accurately reflects American popular attitudes, which it presumably does because the House is elected every two years, no one can ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of congressmen (and senators) have voted for recognizing Jerusalem as the united and undivided capitol of the State of Israel. In addition, they have also demanded that the American embassy be moved to Jerusalem.
MEQ: Is the Clinton Administration acting in accord with that law about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?
Olmert: According to the timetable in the law, the administration still has some time, until 1999, to move the embassy. I am not under the impression that it is making too much effort. I hope that the pressure will continue to grow, so that by 1999, the American embassy will indeed be in Jerusalem.
MEQ: A recent Middle East Quarterly poll asked one thousand registered American voters whether they prefer Jerusalem to remain united in Israeli hands or to be divided with the Palestinians. By an almost 3 to 1 ratio, they indicated a preference for exclusive Jewish control. In another poll, we asked six hundred registered Jewish voters the same question and they offered the same reply, but by an almost 4 to 1 ration. Do you expect these sentiments ever to affect U.S. policy on Jerusalem?
Olmert: I certainly hope it will. America is supposed to be very responsive to public opinion, and this is a very good example of how it should be. I hope that by the year 1999, the capital will be in Jerusalem.
MEQ: Does the press treat you fairly?
Olmert: Hardly. Take Irving Moscowitz's attempt to build on land he owns in Jerusalem. Many journalists joined in this brutal, smear campaign against me and Moscowitz. It's proof that if you are on the right side of the political spectrum, you are exposed to the biases, unfairness, and unethical attitudes that unfortunately sometimes characterizes the press.
MEQ: Are any journalists in particular a problem for you?
Olmert: Well yes. It is really a shame when a prominent journalist like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, who has not once spoken one word to me in the last seven years, pretends to describe my motivations, my political plans, my war game, my attitudes, and my priorities. He establishes a whole thesis on the basis of these nonexistent facts—all this without even speaking to me. It is really sad to see that Tom Friedman serves unethical forces—no, it is really disgusting. He should be ashamed of the manner in which he tries to destroy a politician with whom he disagrees.
MEQ: You have plenty of enemies on the left in Israel. To quote just one, why would Hirsh Goodman call you "potentially the most dangerous" politician Israel has ever seen?7
Olmert: Perhaps he recognizes my abilities, and since he sees me on the wrong side of the political spectrum, he finds me dangerous.
I am not proud of the ignorance, the lack of integrity, and the dirt with which Hirsh Goodman has covered himself. But it has to do with the ethics of his paper and his journalism. He writes that clouds cover my political career with regards to allegations made against me in court—without ever mentioning that I was fully acquitted by the court. He smears me by saying that there are all kinds of questions regarding my personal properties, without bringing one single fact to corroborate these anonymous allegations made against me. This is the worst type of journalism by a man who is not decent, who has no status in his profession. He should be ashamed of the tactics he uses to destroy a political opponent.
MEQ: Ahmad at-Tibi, Arafat's advisor on Israel, has said: "I do not know what motivates Ehud Olmert. This is a subject worthy of serious research."8 Please reply.
Olmert: Why doesn't Tibi invest his time doing some research on this subject, instead of wasting his energies acting as a foreign agent,9advising Arafat. My motivation is simple: to protect the unity of Jerusalem. This is my motivation, my aspiration, my dream.
MEQ: Dan Meridor, former minister of finance, has said about his and your plans to run for Likud leadership, "Ehud wants me to be his number-two man, and I also want him to go with me."10 Please comment.
Olmert: We both have legitimate expectations. Dan is a great friend of mine, and I'd always want him to be with me for my every political venture. I am very happy that he wants me to be with him, which shows that we have a similar opinion about each other. We are great friends, and I'm very proud that he considers himself to be my friend. I was upset when he left the government—a tragic mistake, one out of many stupid mistakes the prime minister has committed for no good reason.
MEQ: And the point that both you and he plan to run for the Likud leadership?
Olmert: I don't know. I am not aware that he has already declared himself a candidate, and I myself have not declared as a candidate. I am only saying that whenever I do, I would love to have Dan Meridor with me.
MEQ: Do you enjoy your job?
Olmert: I consider myself to be perhaps the most privileged Jew in the universe because, by historical coincidence, I was bestowed the power to lead the city at this time in its history. What can be more exciting, more fascinating, more important, and more responsible, than to be the leader of the city for which every Jew has been praying for the last two thousand years?
MEQ: What is it like being mayor of Jerusalem?
Olmert: Let me tell you a story that will give you some idea. I arrived a few days ago in New York on Air France, after changing planes in Paris. On arrival, an employee of the airline company came up to me and my wife as we were leaving the plane and asked, "Are you Mr. Olmert?" "Yes," I replied. "Well, I have some bad news for you." My heart sunk. There have been two major suicide bombings in the past two months, and I immediately feared news of another one. Or some other disaster in the city. "What is it?" I asked with anxiety. "Your baggage did not make the connection in Paris and will not be here until tomorrow." I began to laugh with relief. The airline woman looked at me like I was crazy; but that's what it means to be mayor of Jerusalem. It's not a relaxing job.
1 Yedi'ot Ahronot , June 6, 1997.
2 Israel Television Channel 2, Aug. 20, 1997.
3 The Jerusalem Report, Oct. 16, 1997.
4 The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 13, 1997.
5 Al-Jumhuriya, July 7, 1997.
6 Radio Monte Carlo, Apr. 19, 1997.
7 The Jerusalem Report, Oct. 16, 1997.
8 IDF Radio, July 25, 1997.
9 Tibi is an Israeli national.
10 Yedi'ot Ahronot, Oct. 1, 1997.