Testifying at his corruption trial yesterday, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asserted that, if only he had not been forced to resign by the multiple police investigations against him, there would already be an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
“I know how close we were and what was at stake,” Olmert told the court. “We stood on a brink that could have changed life here. But I also know that such decisions cannot be made when a black cloud is overshadowing your life.”
Olmert has propagated this myth with great success ever since leaving office in March 2009. Indeed, the standard narrative in the international media today, and in parts of Israel’s media as well, is that the sides were near agreement in autumn 2008 when Olmert’s legal woes interrupted the talks.
Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas backed this narrative once Olmert was safely out of office and he was spared the danger of actually having to accept the prime minister’s September 2008 offer—conveniently forgetting that at the time, he never even bothered to respond to it, and later told the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that this was because “the gaps were wide.”
Those “wide gaps,” incidentally, followed Olmert’s offer of the equivalent (after swaps) of 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem; international Muslim control of Jerusalem’s Holy Basin, even including the Western Wall; and resettlement in Israel of 20,000 Palestinian refugees—the most generous offer any Israeli leader has ever made and one unlikely ever to be bettered. In other words, there never was any chance of an agreement. Yet the myth that the sides were “on the brink” has nevertheless gained wide currency.
Of course, this is merely a new incarnation of the myth’s original version: that if only Yitzhak Rabin hadn’t been assassinated in November 1995, he would have made peace.
In reality, Rabin most likely wouldn’t even have won the following year’s election. Throughout much of 1995, polls showed him “seriously trailing” his rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. And the main reason for this was that his September 1993 Oslo Accord produced not peace, but a wave of terror. In the following two and half years, more Israelis were killed by Palestinian terror than in the entire preceding decade. In response, as Oslo architect Yair Hirschfeld admitted in a 2009 interview with Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar, Rabin’s popularity rating plummeted from 90 percent in September 1993 to 22 percent a year later.
But the real problem with these myths is less their historical inaccuracy than the way they distort the future. The delusion that peace would have been achieved if only Rabin hadn’t been killed or Olmert indicted implies that any Israeli prime minister in fact has the power to achieve peace. And if he doesn’t, the fault is clearly Israel’s. This in turn enables its adherents to ignore the true cause of the ongoing failure to reach an agreement: Palestinian rejectionism.
And unless the world stops ignoring this root cause and begins seriously addressing it, peace will never be possible.