'There will be a battle and it will be brutal': Ex-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert addresses conflict

ITV News' International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar sat down with former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert to talk about the fate of his country and ongoing conflict

Ehud Olmert is the last prime minister of Israel to lead the Jewish state into war with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon within his premiership.

It is a prospect Israel now faces in the wake of the devastating and murderous attacks by Hamas on October 7 that has, at the time of writing, left 1200 Israelis dead, over 2000 seriously wounded and up to 150 hostages taken and held in Gaza.

It is somewhat of an irony that just as his successor, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu faces exactly the same challenges in a nation traumatised and seeking revenge - Ehud Olmert is also one of the most intense, persistent and unequivocal opponents and critics of Netenyahu.

I came to visit him at his discrete office in the heart of Tel Aviv, where I have met him before.

He continues to be an intensely political active inside Israel and is constantly travelling around the world.

Ehud Olmert's office sits in the heart of Tel Aviv. Credit: ITV News

But as soon as I arrive to to interview him he beckons me to a photograph displayed prominently in his small office. It shows Ehud Olmert surrounded by friends he has known since nursery school at a reunion in the Kibbutz of Be’eri.

He points to one lady in particular who he as known for over fifty years. He tells me that Hamas terrorists attacked the same Kibbutz where he held his reunions with his childhood friends.

Pointing to the lady, he tells me: “She survived the attack but her husband died”.

It’s a stark reality that the Hamas murders of civilians is so profound and wide that even a former Prime Minister of Israel is not immune to its impact.

I ask him that given the depth of the impact of what has happened in Israel - he accepts that Israel will undoubtedly launch an unprecedented military re-invasion of Gaza that will involve hundreds of thousands of troops that could last several months.

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“Something needs to be done,” he tells me, speaking with deep seriousness, "which will be different from anything that we have tried to do against Hamas up until now. The question, I think, in the mind of every Israeli.”

With that in mind, I ask him, what about the humanitarian situation for the two million civilians in Gaza, many of whom have no connection with Hamas and who will suffer and die from such an operation?

He doesn’t shy away from the question. "There will be a battle and it will be brutal and aggressive and bloody," he says.

"And therefore it is likely that non-involved people will suffer," but he says the intractable issue is “how can we separate (the innocent civilians in Gaza) from Hamas? They may have to understand that if they don't separate from Hamas, they are going to suffer."

Ehud Olmert (right) admits that he is very far from being a neutral commentator on the current Israeli PM (left). Credit: AP

It is a brutal calculation but an unavoidable one he says that people in Israel and the world have to face up to.

Ehud Olmert admits that he is very far from being a neutral commentator on the current Israeli prime minister given his opposition to him.

On the day that an emergency national government of unity was announced, I asked Ehud Olmert if he thought Binyamin Netanyahu was the war-time leader Israel needed at this vital hour.  

He didn’t hold back in his bias against Netanyahu: ''He's the worst person to have to deal with it."

"First of all, he has no trust in a major part of the Israeli public opinion, particularly amongst those who have to carry the burden of fighting.

"All the security community of the state of Israel, all the former Generas and the Chief of Staff and defence ministers and the head of Mossad, the head of the secret service, the head of the police, you name it - all of them were absolutely sell out against him. He considers himself to be a Churchillian leader but if there can be an opposite of Churchill, it would be Netanyahu, unfortunately."

Even after powerful armies conduct successful military operations in other regions, there is the age-old question of: What happens the day after victory?

"The Palestinian issue is here," he told me, "now what do we want? To fight all the Palestinians? To destroy all the Palestinians? To kill all of them?

"I don't want that, I want to kill the terrorists and I want to make peace with the others and that's what the government has to do."

Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City. Credit: AP

He had another word of warning to Israel’s western allies whose huge support at this desperate moment he welcomed.

He said that many Israeli administrations of the last 20 years had promised, after each bombing or attack by Hamas, would "destroy Hamas". So I asked him, would this be the last decisive battle against the Islamist group in Gaza that Israel would have to fight?

"We have to live through it to know," Mr Olmert said.

"I hope it will be, at least for a long time, but I definitely can't guarantee that we will not meet again."