Olmert: PM has ‘declared war on the US government’

Netanyahu’s attacks on Obama’s Iran policy are ‘misguided and dangerous,’ former prime minister charges, says there are better ways to exert influence

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90/File)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90/File)

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Sunday launched a bitter attack against his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for his “utterly misguided” policy of publicly confronting the United States over its Iran policy, and said that Netanyahu was causing an unprecedented and acutely dangerous rift in bilateral diplomatic relations.

“We’ve declared war on the American government. You can’t deny this,” Olmert said at panel discussion at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Under his leadership until five years ago, said Olmert, “It didn’t occur to us to go into battle against our best ally and to whip up Congress” against the US administration in the way that Netanyahu has done. “Any potential benefit” of such an open and unprecedented confrontation, he added, was far outweighed by the dangers.

Olmert also accused Netanyahu of “wasting” 10 billion shekels — some $2.8 billion — preparing “something we didn’t need to prepare.” This was an apparent reference to a potential Israeli strike on Iran.

Netanyahu has publicly savaged the Geneva interim accord with Iran as a “historic mistake.” Officials in Jerusalem have repeatedly castigated President Barack Obama for overseeing a failed negotiating process with Iran under which, they claim, Iran’s nuclear weapons drive is not being thwarted while the sanctions pressure against Iran is collapsing.

“There is one country in the world that regularly votes in favor of the State of Israel at the United Nations over all those years, in cases in which we were 100 percent correct and in cases when we perhaps weren’t 100% correct,” Olmert added.

“They [the United States] were always with us. What do you want from them?”

Hinting at a strike against a nuclear reactor in Syria that Israel reportedly executed in 2007 — when Olmert was prime minister — he said that Jerusalem has the right to act if need be but warned that such actions need to be kept secret and not talked about.

“This is not because there is no problem with Iran. There is a problem with Iran. It is not because we don’t need to fight it with all strength. We need to fight it with all strength,” Olmert said.

“Nobody will teach us a lesson about this — we acted and didn’t talk. Others only talk and didn’t act.”

Olmert, who was prime minister from 2006 until 2009, said he was not enthusiastic about the terms of the interim nuclear agreement, which was signed last week in Geneva, but added that he believes there are hidden terms that must be studied in greater depth before Jerusalem can effectively lobby the Americans for a better permanent agreement, which is supposed to be signed six months after the interim deal takes effect.

“I hope this will not be perceived as an attack on the prime minister,” Olmert said. “But the state of Israel should cease to criticize the policy of the US and the policymakers of the United States,” he said. “There are many other ways in which can influence [it] in order to achieve our goals.”

Olmert said Israel should refrain from leading the international effort against Tehran’s nuclear program, and should instead leave such a role to the US.

“Israel should be a partner in this fight but cannot and should not lead the international fight,” Olmert said. “This was the Sharon government’s position and the position of my government as well.”

Olmert remarked that all of Israel’s security concerns — including those posed by Iran — could be solved by reaching a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“The key to any strategic situation in the Middle East and the Iranian problem is to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians,” he said.

The former prime minister also railed against the Netanyahu government’s approval of thousands of settlement housing units, saying such a move would only set back negotiations with the Palestinians.

“A government which announces the construction of 5,000 new housing units is not conducting serious negotiations for peace,” Olmert said.

Netanyahu, in Rome on Sunday for a state visit to Italy and the Vatican, responded to Olmert’s statements saying, “In contrast to others, when I see that interests vital to the security of Israel’s citizens are in danger, I will not be silent.”

He added: “It is very easy to be silent. It is very easy to receive a pat on the shoulder from the international community, to bow one’s head, but I am committed to the security of my people,” he said, and in a subtle jab at Olmert added, “I am committed to the future of my state and in contrast to periods in the past, we have a loud and clear voice among the nations and we will sound it in time in order to warn of the danger.”

Adiv Sterman contributed to this report

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