Ehud Olmert: ‘Arrogance prevented Israel from avoiding the October 7 attacks’

The former Israeli prime minister urges an end to the war on Gaza and believes Netanyahu should propose a two-state solution to maintain international support

Ehud Olmert
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in his Tel Aviv office; December 31, 2023.QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM

Former Chilean president Eduardo Frei has been quoted as saying that retired politicians are like Chinese vases — valuable objects that no one knows where to put. They also have the freedom to express themselves openly. That’s how Ehud Olmert, the former Prime Minister of Israel (2006-2009) feels when discussing his country’s war against Hamas. Olmert, a political centrist, acknowledges the widespread support in Israel for the war, despite the significant civilian casualties. However, he believes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should end the war now to secure the release of the remaining 125 hostages held by Hamas. Olmert strongly criticizes Netanyahu, believing that his political career has come to an end. He supports resuming negotiations with the Palestinian Authority for a two-state solution, and says “Israel must offer political vision.”

Question. After the October 7 attacks, Israel is currently facing one of its most challenging periods since the nation was founded. How did we get here?

Answer. Israel was deeply shocked by the attack. It’s clear that Israel had the necessary intelligence to anticipate the attack, and friendly services even provided concrete warnings about it. Over time, Israel has developed a level of arrogance and complacency. Netanyahu has been reluctant to engage with the Palestinian Authority. From the Israeli government’s perspective, negotiations often involve giving up territory to the Palestinians, making them hesitant to view the Palestinian Authority as a potential partner in political talks. For someone like Netanyahu, whose political base advocates the concept of a Greater Israel, this was simply not possible. So he has downplayed the significance of the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, labeling them as untrustworthy terrorists. Netanyahu said he preferred to deal with Hamas instead. The crucial difference between Netanyahu and the Palestinians was that the Palestinians were continually improving their military capabilities. Their objective was to do what they did on October 7 — shake Israel’s confidence to the core and cause an unprecedented upheaval. Netanyahu thought he could control Hamas with money because he believed everything had a price. However, it became clear that money couldn’t buy everything.

Q. How did he try to buy off Hamas?

A. He allowed Qatar to fund Hamas with billions of dollars. He believed that money could secure their tacit cooperation. However, not everyone is like Netanyahu. Yahia Sinwar [the Hamas leader in Gaza and alleged mastermind behind October 7] played his cards skillfully. Netanyahu now calls Sinwar a Nazi, but he was the one who released him and 1,026 other Palestinians from prison in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. What he didn’t know is that Sinwar doesn’t play by the same rules. His time in prison provided him with valuable experience, and he knew that the Israelis arrogantly underestimate the capabilities of the Palestinians. They didn’t believe that the Palestinians had the sophistication and know-how to outsmart Israel. Even though Israeli intelligence and cyber intelligence are highly renowned around the world, the Israeli mindset was focused on something entirely different. That’s what led to the massacre. Arrogance was the root of the problem.

Q. Doesn’t this arrogance indicate an intelligence failure?

A. There was no intelligence failure. It was a failure of psychology and intellect, not intelligence. We had all the information. We even have videos of Hamas training and other activities. The same thing happened in 1973 before the Yom Kippur War. We watched them training and wondered, “Is Hamas going to try something? Against us? We are Israel, a nation of startups. We see everything.” We did see what was going on, but we can’t read minds. We failed to understand what was happening.

Q. Did this series of errors impact Netanyahu’s popularity?

A. Some people undoubtedly still support him, but their numbers are dwindling daily. Recent polls indicate that Netanyahu has lost over half of his support. He’s on his last legs.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv; December 31, 2023.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv; December 31, 2023.QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM

Q. The objectives of the Gaza war are to eliminate Hamas and secure the release of the hostages. However, these objectives seem contradictory given the level of violence of the military operation.

A. There are two contrasting opinions on this. Some argue that more military pressure increases the likelihood of freeing hostages. Others believe that a prolonged military operation decreases the likelihood. While we may be capable of defeating Hamas, we could end up with no surviving hostages. That’s why there might be some contradiction between these two objectives. Israel should stop fighting now to secure the release of all the hostages — dead or alive.

Israel has hit Hamas very hard. Hamas is suffering, bleeding. But it hasn’t been destroyed. While they have lost thousands of soldiers, it is important to understand Yahia Sinwar and Hamas. The loss of 10,000 soldiers may not matter much in pursuit of their sacred objective. They have a completely different perspective on human life and sacrifice. Although we have dealt a blow to Hamas’s military capability, Hamas itself remains intact. It’s very difficult to destroy a terrorist organization. Hamas has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 terrorists. If you kill 10,000, that’s a significant loss. However, they still have 20,000, and can quickly replenish their ranks with another 5,000 or 10,000. People without a political future will become terrorists. Defeating a terrorist organization requires a different approach. We’ve killed many soldiers, destroyed their tunnels and command posts, and taken out some of their commanders. Have we eradicated Hamas? No.

Q. Recent polls indicate a significant increase in support for Hamas in the Palestinian territories since October 7. In the West Bank, the support has nearly quadrupled.

A. I’m not sure if there has been an increase in support for Hamas in Gaza. It’s difficult to measure because there are no free elections while Hamas is in control. However, I do believe support for Hamas has grown in the West Bank. Unlike in the half-destroyed Gaza Strip where people are desperately trying to survive, the West Bank is more prosperous. People can go to cafés and bars there. When people watch what’s happening in Gaza on television, they tend to emotionally connect with the people there. This often makes it easier for them to support Hamas.

Q. Do you believe Israeli society would accept stopping the war right now?

A. I’m not suggesting this because it’s popular or unpopular, but because I think it’s the right thing to do. An increasing number of Israelis now recognize the widening gap between the goal of rescuing the hostages and the continuation of the war. We must make a decision — prioritize the safe return of the hostages or keep fighting the war. Personally, I have always opposed such deals, but this situation is different. The hostages were taken from their own homes, their living rooms, their bedrooms, where it is the government’s absolute responsibility to protect them. And we failed. When soldiers are sent to the battlefield, there is always the possibility that they may not return. But they are soldiers. No one would blame you for soldiers killed on the battlefield — that is an inevitable outcome of war. A government has an undeniable duty to protect citizens in their homes — no excuses, no justifications. From the Israeli perspective, the hostages are an unforgettable and unforgivable problem, and the government must do everything possible to recover them. If bringing them back requires ending the military operation — even if it may seem insulting and humiliating — we must be willing to pay the price.

Q. The huge number of civilian casualties is undermining international support for Israel. Is the government aware of the harm it is causing to the country’s reputation?

A. Netanyahu may be aware of the erosion of sympathy for Israel. But from his perspective, his own position and personal status appear to matter more. Either way, he’s completely out of his mind. He has to go. There is growing distrust in Netanyahu. More and more Israelis understand that he’s not the solution; he’s the problem. And to find a solution, we need to get rid of him.

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv; December 31, 2023.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv; December 31, 2023.QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM

Q. The prime minister publicly vows to fight to the end. However, behind the scenes, he is doing things that were once considered taboo. Like accepting the Palestinian Authority’s governance of Gaza and implementing a partial troop withdrawal to facilitate the safe return of hostages.

A. He seems to have lost touch with reality. He lives in a bubble. I believe he thinks that the best way to hold onto power is by making irrational and arrogant statements about total destruction. Maybe he wants to distance himself from the consequences of October 7 by doing this. If so, I think he has made a political miscalculation.

Q. Why does he refuse to talk about the post-war scenario?

A. Because he has nothing to say about it. If he says what he really thinks, the entire international community will reject him. If he says what the international community expects, he will lose power. That’s why he chooses to remain silent.

Q. Based on your experience as prime minister, what should that post-war scenario look like?

A. Israel has to do three things. First, announce the intention to withdraw from Gaza once the fighting ends. Then, approach our allies — the United States and Europe — and ask for their help in finding someone to govern Gaza. No other country should have a presence in Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal. An international peacekeeping force should be deployed for 12 to 18 months to maintain stability and prevent terrorists from regaining power. This interim period will provide the Palestinian Authority with time to prepare for taking control in Gaza.

Moreover, Israel needs to begin negotiating for a two-state solution — let’s propose Egypt as a mediator. And Israel must offer a political vision. This will offer enough leeway for Biden, Sunak, Scholz, Macron and others to give Israel more time to continue targeting Hamas. This way, they can express concerns about the humanitarian situation while acknowledging Israel’s commitment to political resolution efforts. If Israel does not provide a political vision and continues to fight against the international community indefinitely, it will lose most of its support.

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