Page last updated at 16:23 GMT, Thursday, 24 September 2009 17:23 UK

Standing by 'The Olmert Plan'

By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, BBC HARDtalk

As his day in court approaches Ehud Olmert is probably one of Israel's least trusted ex-prime ministers. But still he has convinced himself - if not the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships - that his vision of what is required to make peace in the Middle East will, eventually, prevail.

Ehud Olmert

These days an on-the-record audience with Ehud Olmert is as rare as hens' teeth.

Israel's once voluble prime minister - a deal-maker with a mind as sharp as his tongue - has retreated from public view.

'Hardtalk' was his first TV interview since he was forced out of the p-m's office by an incoming tide of scandal six months ago.

Much of his time is now devoted to meetings with lawyers.

Mr Olmert enjoys the dubious distinction of being the first ever Israeli prime minister to face criminal charges. Court proceedings are expected to begin within weeks.

"I don't have to prove my innocence, someone has to prove that I am not innocent... I don't think they'll be able to do this... I am innocent," he told me, adding "it will be in court and we will meet afterwards."

I reminded Mr Olmert of the 60-page indictment released by the attorney general's office; the accusations of systematic fraud arising from his travel arrangements and fundraising.

Does he allow himself to imagine a guilty verdict and a possible prison sentence? How does he feel about that? "I laugh", he said, without a hint of genuine mirth.

HARDtalk asks former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert about his indictment on corruption charges

Division of land

Mr Olmert had nothing more to say about his legal predicament. So why did he agree to sit down with 'HARDtalk'?

I went a long way - longer than any government in Israel would ever go
Ehud Olmert

Because he has plenty to say about the prospects for Middle East peace.

He revealed in great detail the dramatic offer he made to Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas last September.

The Olmert plan would have involved the return of around 94% of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Israel would permanently retain three settlement blocs and would compensate the Palestinians with a similar amount of land carved out of Israel's pre-67 borders.

Jerusalem's 'Holy Basin' would be put under international supervision and the city's Arab neighbourhoods would be ceded to the new Palestinian state.

'A dramatic mistake'

On the vexed issue of Palestinian refugees, Olmert stressed that he was prepared to acknowledge their "humanitarian suffering". Israel would be prepared to take in small numbers - a few thousand, he suggested - over a five-year period as part of a permanent settlement.

"I went a long way - longer than any government in Israel would ever go," he told me. "There will never be… I promise you, and I know something about politics… there will never be a plan for peace between us and the Palestinians that will be more far-reaching than the one I proposed."

But at the time the offer was made, Mr Olmert was already a lame-duck prime-minister, laid low by scandal. The Palestinians refused to believe he could deliver.

"They made a dramatic mistake by not responding to me, at a time when it was still early enough to move it forward," Olmert now says.

'Two-state solution'

Does any of this matter now that Ehud Olmert is out of office? He insists it does.

With the passion of a politician desperate to burnish his place in the history books he claims the "Olmert Plan" will be the basis of any future settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

But Israel's current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is far more hawkish than Ehud Olmert. He utters the words "two-state solution" through gritted teeth and has resisted pressure from Barack Obama to put a stop to all construction in Jewish settlements.

But Mr Olmert sees the stand-off over settlements is an unnecessary sideshow, and his words represent something of a rebuke to the Obama Administration.

"I think that it's regrettable that we waste time in leaderships, in something which in my mind, at this point, is marginal."

Ehud Olmert is a politician with the thickest of skins. He began his career as an ardent right-wing nationalist and now his one-time allies are his sworn enemies.

After his maladroit handling of Israel's war in Lebanon in 2006, opinion polls rated him the most unpopular prime minister in Israeli history.

I asked him if he was ready to acknowledge that his own political career is now finished and he responded with a smile.

"Oh, we'll meet again," he said, and this time the smile was genuine.

The full interview with Ehud Olmert can be seen on Monday 28 September 2009.

It will be broadcast in the UK on the BBC News Channel at 0430 2300 and on BBC World at 0330 GMT, 0830 GMT, 1430 GMT, 2030 GMT, 2230 GMT.

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