Credit Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with one thing: he’s probably the only world leader more publicly optimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects than George W. Bush. Yesterday, Olmert announced that Israel would begin negotiating final borders with the Palestinians, the ongoing crisis in Gaza notwithstanding. “On this issue there is a set of previous understandings and international backing,” Olmert said, raising expectations in the Israeli press for an “easy” solution.
Of course, Olmert is delusional—Israeli-Palestinian consensus on border issues is light years away. Just ask the Arabic press, which completely ignored Olmert’s negotiations announcement. Instead, the Palestine News Agency, al-Jazeera, and al-Quds placed Israel’s decision to construct new housing units in East Jerusalem among its top headlines, while al-Hayat al-Jadida bemoaned “the Judaization of Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, al-Ayyam’s coverage of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s visit to Washington emphasized his call for an end to Israeli settlement activity—an appropriate focus, given Fayyad’s newly avowed pessimism towards the peace process.
The source of this widening gap between Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ outlooks appears to be Olmert’s fixation on Bush’s April 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which Olmert cited in his call for border negotiations. In this letter, Bush acknowledged that, “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” At the time, Israelis interpreted this as recognizing settlement blocs along the Green Line as a diplomatic reward for the forthcoming Gaza disengagement, thus removing the mutual exclusivity of land-for-peace with settlement expansion.
In fact, the letter recognized no such thing. Rather, it simply allowed for the possibility that future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would opt for “mutually agreed changes” to the Green Line in establishing final borders, and promised to endorse these changes if they were formulated by the two sides. Moreover, the letter made repeated reference to the Road Map, the first phase of which explicitly calls on Israel to freeze settlement activity.
Of course, settlement activity is not the primary reason for the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Indeed, considering the full-scale guerilla war that will likely hit Gaza in the near future, the settlements are small beans. Still, the Prime Minister’s inability to recognize the distance that exists between him and his Palestinian counterparts on borders—which is roughly the distance between the Green Line and the eastern edge of Har Homa—is confounding. If Olmert hopes to bridge that distance, he would be well advised to match his stated goals with policy, finally acknowledging the extent to which continued settlement building is inconsistent with peace efforts.