Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 6/2/2006 [Archive]

My Brother the Israeli Prime Minister

An Interview with Yossi Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister's Brother

Yossi Olmert is not merely a top journalist, Middle East scholar and political insider who's worked for the Israeli national government and run for local office several times in Israel. He's also the younger brother of Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister of Israel.

Yossi Olmert, 56, came to the United States in 2004 following a string of financial setbacks and a bankruptcy filing in Israel, according to the Jewish newspaper, the Forward. He now lives in New York City and has been hired by several American Jewish organizations for speaking engagements across the country. I talked to him May 31 by phone from Corpus Christi, Texas.

Q: Has the war in Iraq been a plus or minus so far, in terms of its effect on the chances for more peace and prosperity in the Middle East?

A: I don't think that the war in Iraq has made any major change, either positive or negative, on the overall Middle Eastern picture. Clearly the removal of Saddam Hussein removed a danger from the face of the earth -- a mini-Hitler. And when you have a mini-Hitler you have to prevent it from becoming a big Hitler. So that was a positive development, clearly. But over all, one can see that the basic forces which are militating against stability and peace in the Middle East are still at play and are still causing a lot of damage and they are still very much a force to reckon with, unfortunately.

Q: Is Israel more or less secure today than it was five years ago?

A: All together, Israel is more powerful and stronger than it was five years ago, because the strength of a nation emanates from a combination of factors. The economy is an important part of it. And the morale, the national sense of solidarity, the national spirit, and also the international standing of the country and of course its military power. When you put together all those factors into the equation, there is no question Israel is getting stronger.

Q: Some Americans believe the United States has not been an honest broker of peace in the Middle East, that we are too pro-Israel. When you have someone say that to you at some of your university appearances, what do you say to them?

A: Those who protested me at the University of California at Irvine used tactics of academic terrorism, pure and simple. They should not be allowed to do it. Nobody should stand up and say that Israel should be destroyed. And even the First Amendment and freedom of speech should not allow, and does not have to allow, people saying to other people "You ought to be destroyed." I don't even care about these people. I will go and talk and most of the people I talk to are very supportive and friendly. All together, American public opinion is very, very pro-Israel. Therefore, it is not surprising that the administration is pro-Israel.

But to be pro-Israel is not to be anti-Arab. America is very friendly with most of the Arab countries in the Middle East. The fact of the matter is, the main pillars of stability in the Middle East, for example, the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty, were brokered through American good offices. In that sense, one can see that America is maintaining a policy of dialogue and openness towards all the parties. Of course, those who don't want to talk to America and hate America will always blame America for everything.

Q: Condoleezza Rice has been talking to the Iranians. Do you think the issue over Iran's nuclear enrichment program will be settled diplomatically?

A: I hope.

Q: Will Israel strike the nuclear facilities in Iran?

A: There is a worldwide coalition that is poised against the Iranian military and nuclear build-up. This coalition should prove effective enough through the U.N. or any other means to stop the Iranians. We are part of this worldwide coalition, so there is no question about Israel doing anything by itself. We are part of the worldwide coalition. We are not leading this coalition. Clearly, the leader is the U.S. and therefore it remains to be seen what will be done. There still is time to prevent the Iranians from having the atomic bomb through diplomatic means.

Q: What's the most important thing Americans should know about your brother the prime minister?

A: He's a good guy!He's coming from a good family.That's something good to start with, you know. He's a very determined leader that wants to do the best for the Israeli people in cooperation and friendship with the U.S. He's a great admirer of the U.S. He's a great believer in democracy. He wants to achieve peace, but he's determined beyond any doubt to take care of the Israeli security interests in the first place. That means taking care of these security interests with regard to the Palestinians, with regard to Iran or with regard to any other threat towards Israel. At the end of the day, he's interested in maintaining and intensifying the economic recovery in Israel -- which is nothing short of miraculous -- and I believe he will prove to be a great prime minister.

Q: Is it realistic to think that the Palestinians will accept the building of the 'Separation Wall' or the Wall?

A: It is a security defensive measure and if it saves even one life, so be it. Lives of Palestinians and Israelis are sacred. Those who do not want to see the fence are basically those who advocate the continuing killing of innocent civilians. This is a measure that is totally designed to prevent further killings of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Q: Is it realistic to expect the Palestinians will put up with the Wall, the loss of Jerusalem, the --

A: Is it realistic to expect the Palestinians will once and for all cease to use terrorism and start to understand the realities of the world, in which people would like to live in peace, to maintain economic progress and prosperity,and to start building and construction, rather than destroying? The only realistic expectation is that people will understand that conflict and terrorism will not lead them anywhere. They will lead them only to destruction.

Q: If you could put yourself in the position of a good moderate Palestinian leader who wants the same goals you want -- prosperity, freedom, all that good stuff -- is there anything that the state of Israel is doing that you think it should not be doing?

A: The state of Israel is doing the right things. Six years ago, a prime minister of Israel called Ehud Barakoffered the Palestinians 97 percent of the disputed lands. He was rejected through a war of terrorism. For the Palestinians, as Abba Eban used to say, 'never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." I can't put myself in the shoes of the Palestinians because I am too much of an Israeli to be in the shoes of others. All I can expect is to see Palestinians understand that compromise means exactly that -- "You don't get 100 percent, I don't get 100 percent. Let's negotiate and see what could be done.'

Q: Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to ever solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue?

A: I am totally optimistic. As a die-hard Zionist, I must be an optimist because Zionism is all about optimism and hope and prospect, as we have proved by maintaining ourselves for so many years under persecution and then coming back to our homeland, rebuilding it and creating a great state. I am a die-hard optimist and nothing will change it. At the end of the day, there will be a resolution of the conflict. But the end of the day means what? I can not tell you.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at © Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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