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Don’t Ignore Olmert’s Lesson in Futility

Those who choose to absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility for their own plight are faced with a difficult dilemma. After 20 years of peace processing that have included enormous concessions on the part of Israel, including the empowerment of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza via Oslo, the withdrawal from Gaza and three separate offers of an independent Palestinian state that the Palestinian Authority rejected, it ought to be impossible for an objective observer to argue that Israel has not tried to make peace. But that hasn’t the stopped the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as American and Jewish apologists for the Palestinians from still trying to portray them as the victims of an intransigent Israel. When confronted with the chance for statehood they were given in 2000, 2001 and 2008, they argue that the offers were insufficient even if it isn’t clear what, short of Israel’s dissolution, would satisfy them.

These are important facts to remember as Secretary of State John Kerry tries to restart the peace talks the Palestinians have boycotted for four and half years. Though the political realities of Palestinian life—the most stark of which is the fact that the Islamists of Hamas control Gaza and exercise an effective veto over peace—make it clear his effort is a fool’s errand, Kerry and those inclined to blame Israel for the lack of peace are hoping to get the Palestinians back to the table and to agree to what they’ve already repeatedly rejected. It is in that context that we should understand the importance of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recollections of his 2008 attempt to make a deal with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert gives a detailed accounting of his negotiations with Abbas in an interview in The Tower, which is important not just as a matter of historical detail and the curious fact that he and Abbas sketched out the proposed borders of a deal on a napkin and then on a piece of stationery. By explaining just how far-reaching the Israeli offer was, Olmert demonstrates just how empty the Palestinian excuses for their refusal to make peace really are.

The offer was every bit as far-reaching as previously reported. Olmert was not just prepared to sanction Palestinian independence in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. He was also prepared not just to partition the capital; He agreed to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over the center of Jewish religious and historical memory: the Old City of Jerusalem. Though the only period in history in which Jews or members of all faiths have had full access to the holy sites has been the 46 years that it has been under Israel’s control, Olmert was prepared to abandon that in favor of a special committee made up of representatives from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians that would jointly administer the Old City. He also agreed to take thousands of Palestinian refugees into Israel as a symbolic bow to the Palestinian “right of return.” In order to keep some of its major settlement blocs in the West Bank, he was also prepared to hand over large chunks of Israel to make it an even swap.

But Abbas couldn’t take yes for an answer.

Indeed, the Palestinian leader wouldn’t even initial the hand-drawn map of the deal. Nor did he ever dignify this generous offer with a response. As Olmert puts it, he’s still waiting for a phone call from Abbas with his answer.

The reason for that is not exactly a secret. Abbas could not say yes because doing so meant recognizing the legitimacy of the Jewish state that would remain in the parts of the country Olmert had agreed to give up. And that is not something he could do and survive in the violent world of Palestinian politics. Since Palestinian nationalism was founded out of the desire to reject Zionism, it is simply impossible for it to make its peace with a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

Olmert’s proposal is vulnerable to criticism because it creates a new divided Jerusalem that would be an unbearable mess. So, too, would his limited right of return for Palestinians and the tunnel he wanted to dig between Gaza and the West Bank. But the real problem is that, like Ehud Barak, who also tried to give the Palestinians almost everything they said they wanted, he got nothing in exchange for offers that compromised Israel’s rights.

In Olmert’s view the only conclusion to be drawn from this failure is that Abbas is, “no hero.” He’s right about that, but the lesson from this episode goes deeper than Abbas’s lack of heroism. If a Palestinian leader couldn’t bring himself to take an offer like that—one, I might add, that gives up far more in Jerusalem than most Israelis thought acceptable—than what this shows is that the 36 meetings Olmert had with Abbas was a charade. The only point of this process for the Palestinians is to use any concessions they get as the floor for future negotiations and demands. The result is that Israel continues to abandon its rights—including not just West Bank settlements but the most sacred places in Judaism—while getting neither peace nor security.

Olmert says he’s proud of his efforts, but all he really accomplished was to demonstrate once again that real peace with the Palestinians remains an illusion for the foreseeable future. 

Those expecting Kerry to improve on this record are in for a disappointment. 


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