In a scathing condemnation, Ehud Olmert charged that Mr Netanyahu’s “arrogance” and “manipulation” had led to catastrophic security failures, allowing the Hamas attack which triggered the current conflict.
He also warned that right-wing “messianics and extremists” brought into Israel’s governing coalition by the prime minister, are blocking the vital need for a settlement and have plans to cleanse Palestinians from their vision of a “Greater Israel”.
Mr Olmert’s strident criticism came as Mr Netanyahu snubbed the latest international attempt at a ceasefire, declaring that the war will continue until complete victory. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, left his fifth visit to the Middle East in the last four months with relations between the Israeli government and Washington reportedly at their worst since the conflict began.
Speaking to The Independent, Mr Olmert said: “Israel has received huge support from the West, from Rishi Sunak in Britain, from Olaf Scholz in Germany, Emmanuel Macron in France and, of course, from Joe Biden, who I got to know well.
“They have got opposition to this support from some people at home. How much longer will they be able to continue this support if this Israeli government will not even open up a narrow window to what may eventually become a peace agreement that will end this war?”
Mr Olmert served as deputy prime minister, acting prime minister, and then – from 2006 to 2009 – prime minister of Israel, having spent many years in the Likud party now headed by Mr Netanyahu. Mr Olmert began his political career as a hawk who opposed returning land seized in the six-day war and voted against the Camp David Accords.
However, he later became the chief architect of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and came close to reaching an agreement on a two-state solution with Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas before it fell apart at the last.
He argues that there needs to be a ceasefire followed by all conceivable efforts to rescue the hostages still being held.
Failure to do this and continue a military mission no longer tenable while hostages remained captive, he held, would be “absolutely unforgivable” and “something which will never be forgotten by the people of Israel”.
According to the latest Israeli intelligence estimates, 32 of the more than 130 hostages still held by Hamas are dead after four months of fighting. Until now the Israeli military had confirmed that 29 had lost their lives in captivity.
Hostages who were freed in a deal last November appealed to Mr Netanyahu to negotiate a ceasefire and bring their loved ones home.
Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday, they spoke of their fear that the captives will pay the price for the prime minister’s pursuit of “absolute victory”.
One of them, 72-year-old Adina Moshe, said: “I’m very afraid and very concerned that if you continue with this line of destroying Hamas, there won’t be any hostages left to release. Everything is in your hands.”
Another, Sharon Aloni Cunio, 34, added: “We’ve reached the awful moment when you must decide who lives and who dies… 136 hostages now wait in tunnels, without oxygen, without food, without water, and without hope, waiting for you to save them. The price is heavy, unbearable, but the price of negligence will become a stain for generations.”
Mr Olmert said Mr Netanyahu was trying to hide his government’s failure to prevent the Hamas massacre by continuing with military action that has plainly unachievable aims.
He said: “The Hamas attack on 7 October was probably the greatest military defeat in the history of the state of Israel.
“We had a similar surprise in 1973 [the Yom Kippur war], but that attack was against soldiers, not civilians, and the outcome was very different when the army fought back quickly and aggressively.
“This time the trust of our people, civilians, was betrayed. They were attacked in their homes, and for hours and hours there was no military to save them. This was a devastating defeat for our country.
“The prime minister of Israel is trying to make believe this never happened. He talks about destroying Hamas and removing them from the face of the earth. This is not humanly possible, not something that can be achieved.
“It is impossible to destroy a terrorist organisation hiding underground in the most crowded urban centre in the world, surrounded by civilians.”
Even when the war ends, Mr Netanyahu appears determined to follow policies that will massively damage Israel, according to Mr Olmert.
Mr Netanyahu has vowed that Israeli forces will stay in Gaza. He is also determined, he has said repeatedly, to stop the PA from administering Gaza. Hard-right members of his cabinet, meanwhile, have advocated resettling Gaza and annexing the PA-run West Bank.
Mr Olmert said: “Israel should not keep an army of occupation in Gaza, that would be a very bad mistake. What needs to happen is an international force, with a strong Western presence, to be there.
“There are plans by people in this government to take over the West Bank as well. Do we really want to impose occupation on 5 million Palestinians, deny them fundamental human rights? Freedom of speech? Freedom of movement?
“I know the tide of opinion turned against the idea of a Palestinian state after the Hamas attack. But I believe that in a relatively short time people will come to terms with the need for a Palestinian state; there is no alternative to this which can work.”
The Israeli offensive in Gaza was necessary and inevitable after the Hamas atrocity and a very strong response was needed, Mr Olmert continued.
“And we have done a very good job in a vigorous, impressive manner. We destroyed their bunkers, we have killed and captured many of their fighters, we have destroyed their [missile] launch sites”, he said.
“But now there is no longer any point in staying on just to destroy two more tunnels and kill some more people when we have hostages that need to be rescued, to be brought home to their families. This has to be done through negotiations, and those negotiations can lead to a peace agreement.”
More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the Israeli military mission began, according to the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian health authority. Mr Olmert said he did not know the veracity of the numbers, but accepted there have been large-scale civilian casualties.
“I ordered our forces to go into a war in Gaza when prime minister,” he said. “You can’t do that and pretend that civilians won’t be killed. I do not know how you can deal with terrorists who hide among people to attack you, without the risk of that happening.
“Let’s not forget the barbarity of Hamas, the killing of children, women, old people, the sexual abuse, the brutality: we were shocked, we were full of grief, how could we not be?”
Mr Olmert, paused and looked away for a few seconds before continuing: “Look, the death of a baby in the hands of Hamas is heartbreaking, it is terrible; the death of a baby in Gaza is also heartbreaking and terrible.
“Many of us personally knew people killed by Hamas. A friend, someone I have known since kindergarten was shot and had to lie pretending to be dead for 10 hours. Her husband, a lovely man, was killed in front of her. There are so many other such stories.
“But I also personally know people in Gaza, know what they are going through: families who have had their homes destroyed, people who have lost relations, families who are having to hide underground, frightened.
“That is the reason we try for peace, to try at least to prevent this happening in the future. I speak as someone who was not accused of being soft on our enemy when I was in government, I was accused of being too hard.”
Mr Olmert insisted that he has “absolutely no regrets” about his part in pulling out of Gaza in 2005: “We had to have 30,000 soldiers stationed there to protect 10,000 Israeli settlers. Soldiers were getting killed, there were constant attacks. What was the wisdom in keeping that?”
He pointed out that Mr Netanyahu, who is now criticising that withdrawal from Gaza, had voted for it to take place. He was also responsible, Mr Olmert added, for freeing more than 1,000 Hamas prisoners, including Yahya Sinwar, who went on to become the group’s head in Gaza, in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a kidnapped Israeli soldier.
“Netanyahu released hardened terrorists, the worst murderers. Then he allowed money to flow into Gaza, he helped Sinwar become powerful”, said Mr Olmert, his finger jabbing in the air.
“There was this arrogance that the situation can be controlled, he gave this image that he was the top security expert in the world, he knew how to deal with Hamas, with Iran, with Syria.
“His government thought they could manipulate the situation. PA they saw as a burden; Hamas as an asset. Now we see the result of that miscalculation.”
Mr Olmert was convicted in 2015 in Jerusalem on charges of breach of trust, fraud, and tax evasion, much of it involving campaign contributions, and served 16 months in jail. He said of the conviction: “The fact is that you may be a president and prime minister, a senior politician. But when the court decides you’re guilty, you have to accept that and bow your head, which I did.”
He pointed out that Mr Netanyahu is also facing criminal charges of corruption, fraud, and breach of trust filed in 2019. It resumed last December after a two-month pause due to the Gaza war. Mr Netanyahu, who denies the charges, did not attend the hearing. “Let’s see how that goes, again it is up to the court what happens to the prime minister,” said Mr Olmert.
Mr Netanyahu’s need for political survival has led him to form a coalition with the hard right, some of whose leaders want wholesale expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.
A senior minister has armed Israeli settlers in the West Bank who have gone on murderous rampages, driving out Palestinian farmers from their land.
“What is happening there is absolutely horrible, farmers being killed, their homes and olive groves destroyed. For these people in Netanyahu’s government, messianics and extremists, Gaza is just a preliminary stage of a bigger plan, to get rid of Palestinians from the West Bank and annex it,” said Mr Olmert.
“What I am saying about these people is the view of most Israeli people, the international community needs to know the vast majority of the Israeli people are totally against this. We are not going to let them throw Palestinians out of the West Bank, we shall put our bodies in the way of them, we have to stop it. This is not just for the sake of Palestinians, but also of Israel, we cannot let the values we hold be destroyed by these people.”
But, despite the current dark days, Mr Olmert says he is full of optimism: “There’ll be elections in Israel and we’ll have a new government. There are people who can provide the leadership of courage, including the courage to make peace, integrity and moral obligation.
“I also know people on the Palestinian side who are capable, talented and can lead their people. I am sure we will get through this together. I have great hope for the future.”