Ehud Olmert has stated repeatedly that Mahmoud Abbas did not respond to his peace proposals, which, in the description provided by president George W. Bush in his new memoirs, included relinquishing “the vast majority of the territory in the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians,” allowing “a limited number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel,” establishing Jerusalem “as a joint capital of both Israel and Palestine,” and placing control of the holy sites in the hands of “a panel of nonpolitical elders.”

Abbas himself has indicated he could not accept the terms. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl last year, reporting on an interview with Abbas, wrote flatly of Olmert’s offer: “Abbas turned it down.” Diehl quoted Abbas telling him: “The gaps were wide.”

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Meanwhile, Abbas’s senior negotiator Saeb Erekat asserted to The Jerusalem Post last month that Abbas had responded to Olmert – not with a definitive yes or no, but with “his own plan and map for a solution” – a claim that sources close to Olmert immediately denied.

Former president Bill Clinton, for his part, has twice indicated in recent days that Abbas was ready to accept the kinds of terms discussed with Ehud Barak in 2000 and offered by Olmert in 2008. In The New York Times last week, Clinton wrote that: “Because of the terms accepted in late 2000 by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, supported in greater detail by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and approved by President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinians, everyone knows what a final agreement would look like.”

And in a subsequent talk to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the former president elaborated that Abbas had “made it clear” that Clinton’s own peace proposals, accepted by Barak in 2000, were “more or less what he’d be prepared to accept.”

Why does any of this matter? Because it’s much more than just recent history. It stands, indeed, as a barometer of Abbas’s viability as a peace partner – a question of vital, ongoing importance.

Now George W. Bush has weighed in, but his Decision Points is either lazily or deliberately somewhat vague on the issue. It’s worth a close look, with a particular focus on the former president’s use of the word “We.”

“Shortly after Annapolis, the two sides opened negotiations on a peace agreement, with Ahmed Qurei representing the Palestinians and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni representing the Israelis...,” Bush writes. “We sent financial assistance and deployed a high-ranking general to help train the Palestinian security forces...

“The negotiations resolved some important issues, but it was clear that striking an agreement would require more involvement from the leaders. With my approval, Condi [Rice, the secretary of state] quietly oversaw a separate channel of talks directly between Abbas and Olmert. The dialogue culminated in a secret proposal from Olmert to Abbas.”

After detailing that proposal, the former president continues: “We devised a process to turn the private offer into a public agreement. Olmert would travel to Washington and deposit his proposal with me. Abbas would announce that the plan was in line with Palestinian interests. I would call the leaders together to finalize the deal.

“The development represented a realistic hope for peace,” Bush writes. “But again, an outside event intervened. Olmert had been under investigation for his financial dealings... [and] he was forced to announce his resignation in September.

“Abbas didn’t want to make an agreement with a prime minister on his way out of office. The talks broke off in the final weeks of my administration, after Israeli forces launched an offensive in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks.”

The president uses the word “We” twice in this passage – in the first case, fairly clearly to refer to his administration: “We sent financial assistance.”

But what of the second case, “We devised a process...”?

If the “We” here refers to Bush, Olmert and Abbas, that would indicate, dramatically, that the Palestinian leader was indeed ready to accept Olmert’s terms, and would tie in to Bush’s reference in the next paragraph to “The development...” – implying that something of true substance had been achieved. It would also accord with Bill Clinton’s recent comments.

If, however, the second “We” is much like the first, and refers to the president and his key administration officials, it carries less significance. It certainly suggests Bush held expectations that Abbas would sanction an agreement. But it does not contradict Olmert’s “he never came back to me” narrative or Abbas’s “gaps were wide” comment, and means that the president’s account offers no new definitive answer.

We’re been trying to get clarification from the former president himself. Watch this space...

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