CNN interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Excerpts)

May 21, 2006

CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER: Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Israel's newly elected prime minister, Ehud Olmert, makes his first official visit to Washington this week for talks with President Bush and other top U.S. officials. He addresses a joint meeting of the United States Congress on Wednesday. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead the agenda, but Iran's nuclear program and recent threatening comments from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will certainly come up. I spoke with the prime minister as he prepared for his trip.

BLITZER: Prime Minister Olmert, congratulations. Thanks very much for joining us. Welcome back to "Late Edition." We have lots to discuss. I want to start, though, with the situation involving Iran and its nuclear ambitions. What's Israel's estimate? How much longer before Iran has a nuclear bomb?

EHUD OLMERT, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: First of all, thank you very much, Wolf, for inviting me to this program, which I was very proud to take part in many times in the past in different capacities.

The issue of Iran is a very serious one. And the question is not when, technically, they will be in possession of nuclear bomb. The question is when will they cross the technological line that will allow them at any given time, within six or eight months, to have nuclear bomb? And this technological threshold is nearer than we anticipated before. This is because they are already engaged very seriously in enrichment. So in other words, we are close enough to the possible possession of a nuclear weapon by the most extreme fundamentalist government, which talks openly and publicly about the wiping out of the State of Israel. That's where we are.

BLITZER: Well, what does that mean in terms of the time line? Do you believe it's months away, years away from crossing that technological threshold, as you say?

OLMERT: The technological threshold is very close. It can be measured by months rather than years.

BLITZER: So what does that mean from Israel's perspective? A lot of us remember the Israeli action in 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the facility at Osirak. You remember that Israeli strike. Is Israel planning a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities?

OLMERT: At that time, you'll remember that most of the international community, including your country, were entirely unaware of the danger of Iraq and of the possible nuclear weapons possessed by Iraq. And therefore, at that time, when we sensed that the international community is not aware, we were left with no other option but to attack Iraq ourselves.

Now there is an entirely different situation. America and Europe are leading this international effort. It is now on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, and many countries are involved in trying to stop this, and I hope that they will succeed. We will certainly try to convince other countries how urgent it is and why it is so important that, at this time before they cross the technological threshold, that the measures will be taken to stop them. But thank God now it's widely recognized by the international community, and therefore, Israel doesn't have to act on its own.

BLITZER: Do you really believe that the president of Iran would stop its nuclear enrichment program under these political pressures from the U.S., the U.N., the Europeans?

OLMERT: I prefer to take the necessary measures to stop it, rather than to find out later that my indifference was so dangerous. We have to remember what happened when the world did not listen to dictators threatening other nations of annihilation. We had one experience in history of the Jewish people that we definitely don't want to be repeated.

When I hear a president of a nation openly and officially declaring on every possible network in the world that he intends to wipe out another nation, my nation, and at the same time, he's working so hard to possess nuclear weapons, I have all the legitimacy to be concerned and to motivate other nations to take the necessary measures to stop him.

BLITZER: Here's what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, said last October. He said, "Israel must be wiped off the map of the world. And, God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionists." And this is what he said only on April 14th, last month. He said, "I would like to say that, whether you like it or not, the Zionist regime is approaching its end. The Zionist regime is a dying tree, that soon its branches will be broken down."

Is this, from your perspective, simply rhetoric on his part, or do you think he really means it?

OLMERT: I certainly think that this is a lot more than just rhetoric. As I said before, when such words are spelled out with such clarity by a leader of a nation, it can't be left unanswered. It is totally inconceivable that, having the experience that the Western civilization has with such leaders, that we will hear these words and we will not respond. It has to be answered.

When such a leader is trying to build up nuclear weapons that can destroy major parts of the entire civilization of ours, then we have to act. And is incumbent upon the responsible forces in the Western world to take the necessary measures.

As I said before, no one can say that he is not aware of what he says and what he claims. And therefore, I trust that the necessary measures will, indeed, be taken.

BLITZER: So what I hear you saying, Mr. Prime Minister, is that if diplomacy fails, Israel might, in the end, have to take unilateral military action.

OLMERT: I think you hear too much on this particular one. What you can say is that I hope diplomacy will not fail, and I hope that the responsible forces will take the necessary measures. And knowing President Bush, the depth of his commitment and the extent of his understanding of world affairs and of the need to fight extremists and terrorists, I am confident that he will lead other nations in taking the necessary measures to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

BLITZER: I just want to press you on this point. You're not ruling out an Israeli preemptive strike, when all is said and done?

OLMERT: I don't think that we have come close to even considering it.

BLITZER: That sounds like a pretty hard and fast statement, but I suspect there are planning operations in the Israeli military, as there are at the Pentagon, just in case.

OLMERT: Again, I understand your need of coming out with a big statement out of this program, and I'd love to give you one. But it will not be on this issue.

There is a Western world. There is America. There is Great Britain and Germany and France and Russia and China and other nations. I doubt that there is one country amongst those I mentioned which has a desire to see Iran, with its fundamentalist, Islamic, extremist government, possessing nuclear weapons. So I trust that they will take the necessary measures. I think it would be inappropriate and out of place for me to make any further statements about the other options.

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