Olmert at J Street insists Abbas is peace partner

“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."

Rice Abbas Olmert 311 R (photo credit: Reuters/Oleg Popov)
Rice Abbas Olmert 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters/Oleg Popov)
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 deal.
“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 nickname.
“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.”
Prime Minister 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.
Olmert 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 talks.
“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.”
In 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 issue.
“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.
Olmert also 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.”
Still, Olmert did receive standing ovations at the beginning and conclusion of his remarks.
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 of Israel.”
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.
Though 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.
Binah 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.”
J Street 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.”