Editor's note: The following interview was conducted by SPIEGEL Foreign Desk Editor Gerhard Spörl and journalists from the French daily Le Figaro and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald as part of a roundtable with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Prime Minister Olmert, how serious are the talks Israel is holding with Syria through Turkish mediators? And how likely is it that you'll be able to reach a settlement and make peace with Syria?
Olmert: I never thought that Syria and Israel should engage in a violent confrontation because I don't think that there is any particular interest for any of us to do it. It is true that for the last 30 years the separating line between Israel and Syria was very quiet. Each side kept its commitment according the ceasefire signed after the 1973 war, and we have had no complaints. But the fact that Syria has positioned itself as part of the "Axis of Evil" and has sabotaged a political system in Lebanon and has supported Hamas and has facilitated terror against America in Iraq is something that can either be changed by a violent confrontation or by a political process. And I think that if there is a chance for a political process it should be tried.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What will be the next stage of the negotiations?
Olmert: Soon enough it will have to be direct; if it is to be serious and meaningful it has to be direct. We talked with Syria in the past when the late Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, when Ehud Barak was prime minister, when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister. So I think we can talk directly and I think it can be serious. Of course right now the Syrians say that they will not separate from Iran. But the very fact that they will make peace with Israel will change the realities of the region in a meaningful manner. I mean business, I want to do it and I will continue to make the necessary efforts.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: When will the point of direct negotiations come about?
Olmert: I think that when we agree on the precise agenda of both sides, then I think it's time for the negotiations. I don't think that we are that distant from it. We more or less know what the issues are. We have discussed these issues in the past with the Syrians. We know more or less what they want and they know what we want so we are not that far apart. I think if we are serious and they are serious then we will have to come to sit together in the same room and work it out.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: French President Nicolas Sarkozy has invited Syrian President Bashar Assad and you to participate in his conference to launch his "Mediterranean Union" project. Will you meet with the Syrian president directly?
Olmert: I promised President Sarkozy that I would come to his event. More I can't say because I am not the organizer. I will definitely be happy to be the president's guest in Paris. He may know the rest better than you and me.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you intend to gain the support of the Israeli people for returning the Golan Heights to Syria?
Olmert: The time will come when the people of Israel will make up their minds, no matter who the messenger. The question of whether the messenger is popular or not is marginal. If there will be an understanding, it will have Israel's approval. It can't be carried out behind the back of the people of Israel. They will have to determine what they want -- through representatives in the Knesset, through direct elections, in whichever way. And I trust that if the agreement will be good enough for a government of Israel to accept then most likely most of the Israelis will approve it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Tell us more about what is in it for Israelis.
Olmert: Peace! That is what we want. We want real genuine peace. Of course peace brings security because we don't have to wait every summer to see whether they will miscalculate or we will miscalculate. If they will stop supporting terror they will no longer be the center of terror that they are today. The headquarters of Hamas, of the Islamic Jihad, of all the others are in Damascus. If there were to be an Israeli embassy in Damascus, it would be a new ballgame.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is Lebanon part of the negotiations with the Syrians?
Olmert: No. But I am ready to start negotiations with Fouad Siniora, the prime minister of Lebanon, tomorrow. There is actually no reason not to.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you like Syria to again play a more active role in Lebanon in order to contain Hezbollah?
Olmert: Let's take it step by step. First of all, let's see that we can build up trust between us and the Syrians. They haven't played such a stabilizing role in Lebanon over the years.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: As far as the prison exchange with Hezbollah goes, do you feel the German mediator helping in those negotiations has done a good job?
Olmert: We are more than grateful for the assistance -- for the contributions of the German government in many of the issues that were part of our agenda in the last few years, including this one. We are still in the middle of the process; it's not yet resolved.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Europeans were quite surprised by the announcement that peace negotiations between Israel and Syria would commence, especially given the September 2007 air strikes against a suspected Syrian nuclear site that everyone assumes was conducted by Israel.
Olmert: First of all, I don't remember Israel ever having made any announcement about the event that you are referring to. But I am sure that even if there were some European countries that were surprised, none of them were disappointed. And I think it's a positive development; it can bring more stability and more continuity in an area that is so troubled.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How serious is Iran's nuclear capability? Would you consider launching a preemptive strike there?
Olmert: It is serious. Israel has long had the opinion that the Iranians have a military program which they will fight to carry on. Why do you need to enrich uranium if you don't have the facilities that can make use of this uranium for civilian purposes? The information that I have is serious enough to justify my concern about the Iranian program.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What can be done?
Olmert: There are many things which are being done. And I think that there are more things that should be done. Israel is not the leader in this effort -- the leadership is on the shoulder of America, of Russia, of China, of Great Britain, of Germany, of France, of the big powers of the world that have the capabilities, in a concerted effort, to stop the Iranians from progressing.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If you feel that sanctions aren't delivering any results, is there a point at which Israel will act on its own?
Olmert: First of all, sanctions are helpful. Are they sufficiently helpful? Probably not. Are there other measures that are helpful? Yes. Can these measures be effective and useful? I personally think there are quite useful and effective measures that could still be applied.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For example?
Olmert: There are many things that can be done economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Can Israel live with a nuclear Iran?
Olmert: No. I don't think -- considering the nature of the Iranian regime -- that Israel can be expected to live under the threat that they may use it.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does Israel have the military capability to remove any nuclear threat on its own?
Olmert: I think that the capabilities of Israel are well known to the world and I don't need to go into the details and to analyze them or to describe further what everyone knows.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the Begin Doctrine, which stipulates that Israel can act on its own if it feels threatened, still apply today?
Olmert: Israel always has to be in a position to defend itself against any adversary and against any threat of any kind.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Gaza, how confident are you that the truce with Hamas in Gaza will hold?
Olmert: I don't think that Hamas is particularly anxious that Israel will use all its military superiority to attack them. By that I don't say that it may not happen because we have come very close to the end of our tolerance with regard to terror from Gaza. We are very close to the point were we will not be able to tolerate anything further. The Egyptians were interested in stopping it because they were afraid that if there were an Israeli reaction, then that reaction might push many of the Gazan people to move into Egypt as has happened already. The Egyptians are not particularly interested (in seeing this happen again). We told them what the Israeli parameters for not acting in Gaza are. If these parameters are honored by Hamas or by anyone, then there will be no need for an Israeli operations because it will create the necessary security for the south part of Israel.
'We've Made a Significant Step Forward'
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was quoted on Wednesday as saying that a truce was near, but that the issue was separate from the question of the future of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.
Olmert: Israel never said that it has to be simultaneous but, as I said, for us nothing will be complete before Schalit is back.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The people in Gaza don't seem to see any incentives that would convince them to stop firing the Qassam rockets over the border into Israel.
Olmert: I am more optimistic than you. I think that there are quite a few people in Gaza who are sick and tired of these atrocities and this violence. I saw Tim Sebastian on the BBC a few days ago and it was young ladies from Gaza who criticized Hamas leader Mahmud Al-Zahar, saying: "You are destroying our lives rather than helping people from Gaza."
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But Israel controls the borders. If they stop firing the rockets, will Israel ease passage at crossing points?
Olmert: We said it! The passage at the crossing points was much more active when they did not shoot that much. I personally intervened at that time in order to reopen the crossings of Erez and Karni from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day so that 480 trucks could cross with 20 or 30 tons each of merchandise and food.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice criticized the new settlement construction during her visit to Israel earlier this week.
Olmert: I understand the sensitivity of the Palestinians, but I don't agree. Before the Annapolis conference last December, there was only the international road map. It said if there will be no cession of terror, there will be no negotiations. Each side was sitting and accusing the other. I came to Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and said, "Okay, there is terror. You will fight terror and let's talk in the meantime. Let's not waste time!" The wisdom of Annapolis is that, notwithstanding the obstacles on the periphery, we keep going in the mainstream and try to reach an understanding. If we reach an understanding, then borders will be fixed. What falls on the Israeli side will remain Israeli and what falls on the Palestinian side will become Palestinian -- even if it was built by the Israelis. And at the same time, terror will have to be stopped entirely because there will be no implementation before terror is stopped completely.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is an agreement possible by the end of this year as outlined in Annapolis?
Olmert: The purpose of these talks is to define accurately the concept of a two-state solution, which means a proposed solution of the refugee issue, of the security arrangements, of the issue of Jerusalem and so on. We've made an important, significant step forward. We say that we hope to reach an understanding on these issues by the end of 2008. We have said we will try. And I think it's possible.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are currently the subject of a police investigation. How confident are you that you will be able to survive politically until the end of your term?
Olmert: Look, miracles in the Middle East are a reality. Ben Gurion once said, "Only those who believe in miracles are realists in the Middle East." So anything can happen. My predecessors were all investigated, all were accused, all were prosecuted -- in an atmosphere that was sometimes intolerable. And they are all still alive and kicking -- except for Ariel Sharon, whom I wish the best for a complete recovery. When I took over two and a half years ago, there were very few Israelis who believed that at the end of June 2008 I would still be prime minister -- especially considering the challenges that I faced. But here I am. I am sitting here and I have no intention pulling out.