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Interview with Ehud Olmert; Religion in Israel

Aired May 4, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

For decades now, we've assumed that the path to peace in the Middle East runs through Jerusalem. But tonight, in an astonishing revelation, we learn that it may lead instead through the United States. So says former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Earlier this week, I had interviewed him on the chances of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program. Near the end of that interview, he leveled an explosive charge, that certain elements within the Jewish community here in the United States, he says, deliberately derailed the Middle East peace process by trying to topple him.

You will hear that accusation in just a moment. But first, let's go back to the year 2000, when President Bill Clinton brought then-prime minister Ehud Barak of Israel and the Palestinian president Yasser Arafat to Camp David. They came so close to achieving a comprehensive peace agreement, although ultimately it failed.

The next most promising-looking plan came eight years later when prime minister Olmert drew up his proposal for peace. But could it be that his plan was undermined not only by the opposition inside Israel but by those were against it right here in the United States? That's his charge. But as you'll hear, he still thinks that his plan is the surest way to peace.

Here's part two of our conversation.


AMANPOUR: It's often been said that you can't make peace because it's politically a killer for an Israeli prime minister.

EHUD OLMERT, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: It was a killer for me. It was a killer for me, not only because of the opposition in Israel. I think that, by the way, in Israel, the majority of the Israelis would have supported my plan, had it come for elections.

But I had to fight against superior powers, including millions and millions of dollars that were transferred from this country by figures which were from the extreme right wing that were aimed to topple me as prime minister of Israel. There is no question about it.

AMANPOUR: Names? Who?

OLMERT: Next time.

AMANPOUR: But is that why Netanyahu doesn't do it? How can any Israeli prime minister do it, then, if that's what happened to you?

OLMERT: I think that I was fully aware that it is a danger. I was going through it with open eyes and I said my personal faith is much less important than the future of the state of Israel. That's why you are prime minister for. That's why you take the responsibility of leadership, to do things which are right for the nation that you want to lead.

And I paid personally dearly. But there was no other option for me but to do what I did. And I know for sure -- and I know the names of the people that spent millions of dollars in order to stop me, from the United States of America.

It came from figures in the United States of America that belong to the extreme right wing, who wanted to prevent the government led by me from achieving peace on the basis of the principles set up (inaudible).

AMANPOUR: You famously made an offer to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, and you have said that he didn't say no, but he didn't say yes.

OLMERT: Correct.

AMANPOUR: Right now, nothing is happening.

OLMERT: Correct.

AMANPOUR: Is it getting too late? Is there still time for a two- state solution?

OLMERT: There is time, but time is running out, and time is running out for us. It must be clear, I think that only enemies of Israel will advise Israel to postpone it endlessly. And the lovers of Israel should lean on the Israeli government to immediately embark with a serious peace plan, you know, I'm ready that Mr. Netanyahu will take my plans, every word of it, and will call it the Netanyahu plan and will present it to the Palestinians.

I heard from reliable sources -- (inaudible) Palestinians and including from direct messages, which were relayed to me by the office of the president, Mr. Abbas, that he never said no and that he never meant no to my proposal. So why not Israel reintroduce this plan again? And present the challenge to the Palestinians?

AMANPOUR: Mr. Diskin again, former Shin Bet chief, says that the current government, the Netanyahu government, is, quote, "not interested in solving anything with the Palestinians. And I say this with absolute certainty."

Can this government do it? You hope that they take your plan, but will prime minister Netanyahu do it?

OLMERT: I said my dream is that Netanyahu will adopt my plan and will introduce it. The fact is that he doesn't. But the fact is that we don't negotiate with the Palestinians. And the fact is that we have not proposed anything.

And the fact is that we look like we are happy that we can say that they don't want to negotiate with us rather than feel that it is incumbent upon us to do every possible effort in order to force them to sit down with us and negotiate because peace is important for Israel. We want peace. We need peace. We want to separate from the Palestinians.

We don't want to control the lives of the Palestinians. We want them to have their own separate state and we have to do everything in our power in order to bring it about.

AMANPOUR: So why isn't the prime minister doing it? He's called himself a man of peace.

OLMERT: Well, you know, political persons call themselves -- give themselves many titles. The question is, at the end of the day, what is the bottom line? What you do and what you don't do.

AMANPOUR: Do you think this prime minister will do it?

OLMERT: I certainly pray that he will do it. I doubt if he will.

AMANPOUR: Your plan was quite a significant plan for peace plan and a sharing of Jerusalem.

OLMERT: My plan was, I think, precisely what, on that part, what President Obama, for instance, talked about. He said that there's -- it would be based on the six (inaudible) alliance (inaudible) solution with minor adjustments on both sides. Therefore he said -- and that's what I proposed, that lines would not be identical to '67, but it would be based on '67 with swaps of territories, number one.

Number two, I propose the division of Jerusalem. It broke my heart. It was the most difficult decision of my life. I never faced any such situation in the past. I don't think I'll ever face in the future, because for me to propose a division of Jerusalem was really terrible. I did it because I reached a conclusion that without which there will not be peace.

And I also proposed that the Holy Basin (ph), including the Temple Mound, will be administered by five nation, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinians and the United States of America. And, therefore, these five elements, on the basis of '67, they are parts of Jerusalem, will be part of the Palestinian state and there will be the Jerusalem capital of the Palestinian state.

The Jewish parts, of course, will remain under the state of Israel and the sovereignty of the state of Israel. These five elements must be dealt with immediately. They can be dealt with reputably (ph), and they will lead into a full comprehensive peace between us and the Palestinians.

There can be no better partner, I don't think that I will (inaudible) ideal partner, but there is no one better than him and Salem Fayyad, I don't know. And I don't think there will be in the future.

AMANPOUR: You just talked about, based on the '67 lines, when President Obama said that in his speech, it created a huge fuss within the Israeli community, the Jewish-American community, but you're saying, as the Israeli prime minister, that that's what you proposed.

OLMERT: I proposed it. I am absolutely confident that there is no one with greater (inaudible) for the state of Israel than I am. I love my country more than anything else. I think that this proposal is the best for the future of the state of Israel.

I think that what President Obama said was within the framework of what is good for the state of Israel and I then didn't understand why he was attacked, and I still can't understand why he was attacked.

And I made every possible effort in my -- there was a capacity at the present time to elaborate on this issue and to spell it out everywhere that I could, that this is the best proposal for the future of the state of Israel.

It is the most important thing for us to reach an agreement, to separate from the Palestinians, to have them create their own independent state and that can only be done if we will withdraw from territories on the basis of the '67 lines.

AMANPOUR: Move on to another area of extreme importance, how do you account for the incredible depth of conservative sort of fervor inside Israel right now, the sort of rise of orthodoxy and the fact that there's a majority of Israelis who say they feel that the biggest threat to Israel is orthodoxy?

OLMERT: I don't think that this is the greatest threat to the state of Israel. It's certainly something that disturbs the balance within the state of Israel and it has to be copped (ph) with in a much more respectable and serious manner.

But when you have a government which is afraid of its own shadow, when you have leadership which is so weak, which changes their attitudes from morning to the evening, from the evening to the morning about every issue, when you are totally dependent on the support of the orthodox community politically, then you don't do what needs to be done.

I was mayor of Jerusalem. I was a -- having the coalition with the ultra-orthodox community, which was a major part of the city. I knew when I had to say yes to legitimate demands, and I knew when to say no to demands which I thought were absolutely illegitimate and I lived with great respect with them.

To this day, why? Because sometimes the test of leadership is the ability to say no and to bang on the table, and not to give up on every principle only because if fits in with your political needs. But, unfortunately, this is not the situation right now in the state of Israel.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for joining me.

OLMERT: Thank you very much.


AMANPOUR: And as we noted in our earlier interview with the former prime minister, he has been a frequent target of corruption charges, but he's not been convicted of a crime. He denies the charges and he declines to address them with us.

Meantime, the impact of orthodoxy as we've discussed is not limited just to politics and foreign policy. In daily life, even in prayer, there is a struggle going on within Israel. When we come back, you'll meet the remarkable woman who may go to jail for praying.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back. We just heard former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert talking about the tensions between ultra-orthodox Jews and secular Jews within Israel. And my next guest is at the very front lines of that conflict.

She is Anat Hoffman, and she leads an activist group which fights for religious pluralism in Israel. She was arrested while praying at the western wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, and that's where the rules of conduct reflect the traditions of most orthodox Jews.

But Hoffman says the religious act that she was arrested for is actually a common practice for reform Jews all around the world. A short while ago, I sat down with her to discuss all of this.


AMANPOUR: Anat Hoffman, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Tell me what is up with you? You tried to go and pray at the western wall and you were arrested. What exactly was your offense? What was your crime there?

HOFFMAN: I was breaking the 13th regulation of the Law of Holy Places. I was conducting a religious act that offended the feelings of others. And that's against the law.

AMANPOUR: Do you face arrest? Did you go to jail?

HOFFMAN: I could be charged. I am not being charged so far because of international ramifications, you being one of them. And I am worried that this is to intimidate all of the women of the world to beware not to do it. I was -- my fingerprints were taken. A policeman tried to find out if I was holding the Torah scroll with the intent to read. And now I'm going to tell other women that they --


AMANPOUR: So reading is wrong?

HOFFMAN: Reading the Torah scroll is illegal, because it is constructs a religious act that is offensive to the feelings of others.

AMANPOUR: There's also been this issue that shocked us, actually, in the West, the so-called Rosa Parks moment, when an Israeli woman tried to sit somewhere in the bus and she was told she had to sit in the back because that's where women sat. Of course, she made her stand, so to speak, and sat near the front.

You've actually brought in this --

HOFFMAN: Yes, yes.

AMANPOUR: -- this sign -- let's see if we can have a look at it.

HOFFMAN: We went to court representing a variety of orthodox women. We won the case -- and this is hanging in every Israeli bus, right behind the driver, above the exit and above the entrance.

AMANPOUR: So presumably it's working.

HOFFMAN: No, it's not. I'll tell you why, because Israelis don't adhere to signs very well. If an Israeli --


AMANPOUR: Is it in Hebrew or is it in English?

HOFFMAN: Yes, it's in Hebrew. But if an Israeli sees a sign that says "fresh paint," first, he'll check if this is not a plot. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's not fresh paint. So we need to start a -- we started Freedom Riders.

Freedom Riders are religious and non-religious, men and women who go on the buses and make sure that this is enforced, and then once we started suing drivers for damages, for not standing up for a woman, not stopping the bus and saying, let her sit wherever she wants, once we started suing the drivers, we had tremendous success.

This is very effective. And now the number of segregated rides is going down considerably.

AMANPOUR: But what is going on? Because we keep hearing now in Israel this struggle between the orthodox, the ultra-orthodox and the more secular.

HOFFMAN: The reason is that secular politicians in Israel make greater and greater concessions to the ultra-orthodox, because the ultra- orthodox -- that might be familiar to you -- are a very obedient crowd in a democratic game.

They play it better than us. The dead come to vote, 100 percent show voting. And they vote as a block, in one way. And they've become, even though they are a minority in Israel --

AMANPOUR: How small a minority?

HOFFMAN: In the latest report, the Gutman (ph) report, 7 percent of Israelis define themselves as ultraorthodox.

AMANPOUR: Even the prime minister of Israel has said there was this really appalling situation, when a young girl was verbally abused and even spat on for trying to go to school wearing what the ultraorthodox in her neighborhood considered the incorrect clothing.

Even the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, does have a coalition with some of the very religious parties, said that this instance of harassing the girl was against Israel's democracy. Does that not resonate?

HOFFMAN: Yes, but I want to explain. It's not all of orthodoxy that is so extreme. It's very few people inside orthodoxy that are extreme. The rest of the orthodox are guilty of being silent. And you and I know that for evil to prevail, good people just have to be silent.

AMANPOUR: Is this evil or is this just trying to impose your very strict religious principles on the rest of society?

HOFFMAN: When it comes to spitting on an 8-year old, we're talking about evil.

AMANPOUR: I've read polls -- and I've been reading quite a lot about this -- that quite a significant portion of the Israeli public feels that this struggle between the secular and the orthodox is a big threat to Israel.

HOFFMAN: Yes, yes.

AMANPOUR: To its democracy, and yet, I'm sure, as you know, the population, the demographics, it seems will favor the orthodox. They do have big families.

Do you think that that is going to have its own momentum in the months and years to come?

HOFFMAN: Well, the thing is that half of the family's usually women. And as I'm saying, orthodox women are revolutionizing Israel in that they - - since they're not obliged to study Torah, they go to regular school. They study --


HOFFMAN: -- women. Women study science. Women study English. Women have -- Mom knows what a mortgage is. Mom knows how to write a check. It's Dad that knows what is the ruling if you take an oven and cut it into nine pieces, can it make a matzoh that is kosher?

That is not in the world. And because the role of the orthodox women is changing in the family, that's why they want to push her to the back of the bus. That's why they want to silence her on orthodox radio.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's talk about this, because, again, it seems, as you say the ultraorthodox do spend a life studying, studying the Torah, in prayer. And that, I read, is having a dramatic effect on the economic well-being of the orthodox community, that they're becoming poorer and poorer, that they're practically ghettoized. Is that right?

HOFFMAN: It's having immense economic effect on Israel, altogether. It's a huge burden on Israel's economy. And I can see right here in New York, that ultraorthodox people can work. I have to come to New York to see it. I don't see it in Israel.

AMANPOUR: Can't work?

HOFFMAN: They study -- the government pays them to stay in the yeshiva. And I think it's time we saw that it's possible to be ultraorthodox and work.

HOFFMAN: If you think if one of our greatest scholar, Maimonides, he was in the Yellow Pages. He was a physician. He worked full-time and wrote some of the greatest works in Judaism. Many of our sages in the town would -- were cobblers and surveyors and builders. It's possible to work and not be only state-owned (ph).

AMANPOUR: The rise of orthodoxy and its political impact, how do you think that affects any possibility of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians?

HOFFMAN: Look, when I'm very miserable, I look at Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, deeply religious people that used religion to mend their country. When you think of South Africa, you see how religion can actually act not as an obstacle, as the big peace and reconciliation committees are drenched in religious rhetoric. You see religion at its very, very best.

I come to my town, where every occasional brush fire is the beginning of a new religion, I'm a Jerusalemite, and I pray that one day our religions, our various religions, will be a catalyst for dialogue. Right now the most extremist on both sides are the religious entities. And I think we should all turn to Mandela, who's still alive, and Desmond Tutu, and get inspired by these fantastic religious leaders.

AMANPOUR: Anat Hoffman, thank you very much indeed for coming in.

HOFFMAN: Thank you for inviting me.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back. Now as our regular viewers know, this network has vast resources, reporters all over the world, who file stories each and every day, sometimes from the furthest corners of the globe.

Now imagine a world where the oceans hold a greater threat than tsunamis or sharks -- the ancient threat of piracy. CNN's Kyung Lah brings us a tale of survival and necessity from the African coast.


ANTONIO PLAZA OROZCO, PIRATE HOSTAGE: I'm so happy I'm still alive.


KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Antonio Plaza Orozco cries just thinking about being one of these men, freed hostages returning home after being held at sea. Orozco was working as a senior crewman off the coast of West Africa last year aboard this ship. Pirates cut through the barbed wire. On the deck, they beat him bloody with their AK-47s.

OROZCO: He told, I will cut your neck and I will throw you overboard.

LAH: Did you think he was going to kill you?

OROZCO: Yes. They were crazy. Crazy. Very crazy.

LAH (voice-over): An 11-day ordeal that found Orozco negotiating for his life and the life of his crew.

OROZCO: I make friends with them. And I told them please, my friend, brother, my brother, don't kill us.

LAH (voice-over): Befriending a pirate, something he learned in this anti-piracy class, a government-mandated course for these Filipinos who work at sea, because so many of them are at risk of becoming hostages.

LAH: One-third of all seafarers, the people who work on international waters, are Filipino. The reason why, the money. In just one month, they can earn $1,500, an unimaginable income in a country where 40 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day.

LAH (voice-over): There is no other option, say Reydomingo Nuval, who was held hostage with Orozco.

LAH: Why would you even consider going back?

REYDOMINGO NUVAL, PIRATE HOSTAGE: Because I have to. I have to support my family so I have to go back.

OROZCO: I have one son still in school. I am the one who send him to school. That's why I sacrifice.

LAH (voice-over): It's an unfair sacrifice, says the country's second biggest seafarer's union. The government anti-piracy training is something, but --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that it's not the solution.

LAH (voice-over): The union says what's really needed is more than exercises in classroom simulations. It would like a naval escort or private armed security on board, both options the government says its weighing. What's not an option is stopping the work of the seafarers, something on which all sides, even these former hostages agree.

Orozco and the rest of the crew are alive, because the pirates simply decided to take the cargo and go.

OROZCO: That's life.

LAH (voice-over): A dangerous life that Orozco will continue when he returns to the job this week, joining hundreds of thousands of Filipinos already at sea -- Kyung Lah, CNN, Manila.


AMANPOUR: That's it for today's program. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.