Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's lecture Wednesday at the University of Kentucky has packed the house and sparked protests from the Islamic Society of Central Kentucky, whose members say Olmert is the wrong choice to speak on Middle East peace.
Olmert, whose tenure as prime minister covered last winter's widespread violence in Gaza, accepted UK's invitation in September to discuss prospects and preconditions for peace in the region. All 1,400 free tickets to the lecture, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Singletary Center for the Arts, have been distributed, UK confirmed.
UK has scheduled a "prominent Palestinian" speaker who will be announced soon to give a similar lecture on the prospects for peace.
A spokesman for the Islamic Society praised UK's underlying objective: to put a spotlight on the ongoing frictions and potential for peace in Gaza and the Middle East.
But Olmert doesn't have standing on that subject, said Dr. Jamil Farooqui, a Lexington physician, speaking on behalf of the Islamic Society of Central Kentucky.
"It is very unwise to ask the person who raised a war to come and talk about peace. That will defeat the whole purpose," Farooqui said.
He said he expects more than 300 people to participate in a silent protest with signs outside the Singletary Center starting at 6 p.m.
UK spokesman Jimmy Stanton said Olmert, by virtue of his vast political experience at crucial times in history, can add much to the broader discussion of peace.
"For that reason and for his status as a world leader, we felt his perspective would be beneficial ... so we invited him to visit," Stanton said.
Olmert's visit to UK comes between lectures at Tulane University on Tuesday and the University of Chicago on Thursday, Stanton said.
Olmert's political views are considered moderate, said Judy B. Wortman, executive director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation.
"He represents a centrist position in Israel," she said. "He was really one of the first people to support the two-state solution — at least publicly."
Olmert's lecture comes a month after the release of a United Nations report that condemned the Israelis and Palestinian armed groups — chiefly Hamas — for committing war crimes during a series of attacks and counter-attacks in Gaza between Dec. 27, 2008 and Jan. 18.
On Monday, Olmert's successor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, criticized the U.N. report, which was the result of an investigation headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone.
Olmert also faces trial in February on fraud and breach-of-trust charges for allegedly taking money in envelopes from an American businessman. Olmert has maintained his innocence.