As did Jonathan last week, and Ron Radosh over at Pajamas Media, Sol Stern has dismantled Bernard Avishai’s New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Peace Plan That Almost Was and Still Could Be,” and Richard Baehr pegged the article as part of the Times’s agenda-driven journalism. Buried in the article, however, is a significant observation by Ehud Olmert that suggests that Barack Obama’s election had a negative impact on the peace process even before Obama mishandled it in office.
Stern described as “pure hokum” the article’s theory that peace negotiations stopped in September 2008 because of Olmert’s preoccupation with his legal problems. Those problems actually made Olmert more eager to reach an agreement to try to save his legal skin. Stern posits a different theory:
In actuality, there is only one plausible reason for Abbas’s failure to return to discuss the issue of borders [after Olmert presented his map]. It is that the PA president could not and cannot ever allow himself to announce to the Palestinian refugees and their myriad descendants that their 60-year-old dream of returning to their homes in Israel is over.
Stern is right about Abbas but wrong about the sole reason. There is an additional explanation, supported by Olmert’s observation in the Times article.
Back in January 2001, after the Palestinians rejected the Clinton Parameters, Ehud Barak sent a delegation to Taba for a last-gasp negotiation, two weeks before the Israeli election in which he was facing defeat. But the Palestinians’ position actually hardened at Taba. In “Taba Mythchief,” David Makovsky recounted how they thought they would get a better deal with George W. Bush — a Republican (Jews were Democrats); a Texas oilman; the son of a former president who had not been sympathetic to Israel. That turned out to be wrong.
The same thing happened again in 2008. On September 16, Olmert presented his map to Abbas — telling him it was the best offer the Palestinians would ever receive; Abbas said he would return but never did. It was in mid-September that presidential polls turned in Obama’s favor, and the Palestinians undoubtedly thought they would get a better deal from Rashid Khalidi’s former colleague, then just weeks away from being elected president. Avishai relates Olmert’s observation that “Abbas delayed partly because he hoped to get a better deal on the map from an Obama administration.”
Obama subsequently reneged on the informal understanding regarding a settlement “freeze,” disregarded the 2004 Bush letter, demanded Netanyahu formally endorse a Palestinian state, manufactured a crisis about future Jewish housing in a longstanding Jewish area of Jerusalem, repeatedly pressured Netanyahu with public humiliations, had his secretary of state lecture him in a 43-minute call and issue a press release about it, declined to visit Israel, etc. — all while demanding nothing from the Palestinians. It resulted in the Palestinians hardening their position.
In 2008, just as in 2001, the Palestinians passed up an offer of a state — in the belief a new U.S. president would or could pressure Israel into a deal without defensible borders or the major settlement blocs within them. Both times they were wrong.