WASHINGTON – Former prime minister Ehud Olmert insisted on Monday night that
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a partner for peace despite
years of negotiations between the two men that failed to clinch a
“No one can say to me after hundreds of hours of discussing peace
with Abu Mazen that he is not a partner because he doesn’t want peace,” Olmert
said at the J Street annual conference’s gala dinner, using Abbas’s
“He wants peace with Israel and he accepts the existence of
Israel as Israel declares itself to be. I don’t need Abu Mazen to make
declarations about the nature of the State of Israel.”
Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, which replaced the Kadima-led coalition when
Olmert was forced out of office on corruption charges three years ago, has
pushed for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state to demonstrate
commitment to the concept of two states for two peoples.
maintained that he knew better than anyone the sincerity of Abbas’s desire to
make peace, since he had held 36 meetings of several hours with him over the
course of years.
Given the lengthy negotiations and their ultimate
failure to reach an agreement, which in the past Olmert has said was a result of
Abbas not accepting the most far-reaching offer Israel had ever made the
Palestinians, it was somewhat of a departure to hear him speak of the
Palestinian president’s dedication to peace rather than his role in the failed
“He is saying the truth here,” Maen Areikat, chief PLO
representative to the US and an attendee of the J Street gala, told The
Jerusalem Post of Olmert’s comments that Abbas wants peace. “To come from an
Israeli prime minister who had the chance to talk and to meet with President
Abbas like he said 36 times, I think this strengthens the idea that there is a
genuine Palestinian partner who wants to put an end to this conflict.”
his address, Olmert alluded to some of the parameters that he had laid out,
including that the lines between the states would be based on the 1967 borders
with land swaps, that Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods would go to the
Palestinians and that there would be no sovereignty over the Old City’s holy
sites but rather a five-country administrative body comprised of Israel, the US,
the PA, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“There is no alternative,” Olmert
contended. “One day when we will celebrate with the Palestinians, this peace
will be identical to what I proposed.”
He stressed, however, that the
imperative for peace was a central Israeli interest to maintain its Jewish and
Democratic character and not one that outside groups needed to dictate, a notion
that runs up against J Street’s call for American guidance on the
“I don’t need anyone from America or from anywhere else to tell me
what I need to do for myself, for my people, for my children, my grandchildren
and the future people of the State of Israel,” he said.
speculated that if he was willing to blame only Israel for the breakdown in the
talks, he might receive a standing ovation from the crowd.
But he said,
“No one should and can relieve the Palestinians of their responsibilities. They
have responsibilities and they don’t always meet their responsibilities and it
has to be mentioned if we want to be fair to the issue.”
did receive standing ovations at the beginning and conclusion of his
His comments overall were wellreceived by audience members,
particularly when he told them: “J Street is a legitimate organization which
cares for the State of Israel, which is dedicated to the well-being of the State
He added, “If we’re entitled to have disagreements, why are
you not entitled to have disagreements.”
In contrast, the deputy chief of
mission of Israel’s US embassy, received a much cooler reception.
Barukh Binah was enthusiastically welcomed when introduced, his address
detailing the differences that the Israeli government has with J Street was met
throughout with silence and only respectful applause at the end.
lauded J Street for rejecting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement and
the group’s support for the US-Israel relationship. But he urged the progressive
lobby to support the US and Israeli position that all options should be on the
table for preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and warned against the
group giving any exposure to those who support BDS even if the organization’s
leadership does not.
“We need you to stand with us,” he said. “It is as
simple as that, and someone ought to say it. Internal activism is a central part
of democratic societies, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can
present us with a problem when... we need you the most.”
executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami took the stage immediately after Binah, and
while he thanked Binah for his participation, he also indicated that his
organization would not stay silent.
“As with all good families, we have
our disagreements,” he said.
“What we have in common is too important for
us not to speak and, if necessary, to argue,” he continued. “That’s the Jewish
way. It’s the spirit of our people. It should be part of the relationship
between the American Jewish community and Israel.”