Rice reveals concessions in 2008 peace talks

New memoir by former secretary of state reveals details on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks; was "impressed" by Olmert's desire for a deal.

Rice Abbas Olmert 311 R (photo credit: Reuters/Oleg Popov)
Rice Abbas Olmert 311 R
(photo credit: Reuters/Oleg Popov)
WASHINGTON – A new memoir by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice will be released Tuesday, but the lengthy book has already raised uproars in Israel and abroad before it hits the shelves.
Rice’s description of the failure of the 2008 peace talks demonstrated key silences regarding American understanding of the Palestinian position, as detailed in papers leaked to the press earlier this year.
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Rice said that in spring of 2008 both she and then-president George W. Bush had “both been impressed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s desire to get a deal.”
The former secretary of state recounted an evening in Jerusalem in May when she was asked to dine alone with Olmert. The then-prime minister presented her with an outline for a peace plan.
“I know what [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] needs. He needs something on refugees and on Jerusalem. I’ll give him enough land, maybe something like 94 percent with swaps. I have an idea about Jerusalem. There will be two capitals, one for us in west Jerusalem and one for the Palestinians in east Jerusalem.
The mayor of the joint-city council will be selected by population percentage. That means an Israeli mayor, so the deputy should be a Palestinian. We will continue to provide security for the Holy sites because we can assure access to them,” Olmert told her.
“I’ll accept some Palestinians into Israel, maybe five thousand.
I don’t want it to be called ‘family reunification’ because they have too many cousins; we won’t be able to control it. I’ve been thinking about how to administer the Old City. There should be a committee of people – not officials but wise people – from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians, the United States and Israel. They will oversee the city but not in a political role,” he continued.
Rice recalled her incredulity: “Am I really hearing this? I wondered. Is the Israeli prime minister saying that he’ll divide Jerusalem and put an international body in charge of the Holy sites? Concentrate. Write this down. No, don’t write it down. What if it leaks? It can’t leak; it’s just the two of us.”
Rice said that she visited Abbas in Ramallah the next day. “I sketched out the details of Olmert’s proposal and told him how the prime minister wanted to proceed. Abbas started negotiating immediately. “I can’t tell four million Palestinians that only 5,000 of them can go home,” he said.”
While Rice is silent on the ensuing breakdown of talks – missing pieces are actually supplied by the Palestine Papers – documents memorializing 10 years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that were stolen from Saeb Erekat’s office and posted on al-Jazeera’s website last January.
Although Palestinian negotiators spoke publicly about compromise on refugees, privately they spoke of the “right of return” as a matter of individual choice that would have to be extended to each of over seven million people and with Palestinians retaining the open-ended right to try to negotiate additional “returns” beyond any number initially agreed upon in a peace treaty.
Abbas was simply unprepared to accept any offer that did not allow for the “right of return.”
Rice recounted how on September 16, 2008 Olmert presented Abbas with a groundbreaking offer for a two-state solution including a map outlining the territory of a Palestinian state. Rice confirmed reports that Olmert insisted that Abbas sign then and there, but that Abbas “demurred, wanting to consult his experts before signing.”
Olmert, Rice said, refused to give Abbas the map – a fact that the Palestinians have said proves that Olmert’s offer was not serious.
But the Palestine Papers indicate that on September 16, the Palestinians drew-up a map that seems to outline with great specificity the offer made by Olmert, in spite of the fact that they complained he would not give them a copy of the map.
Abbas asked for a meeting the next day with his advisers present.
The meeting the next day was never held – Rice did not say why, but Olmert has since said that he received a call from Saeb Erekat requesting that the meeting be postponed.
The US administration seems to have been unaware that in preparation for the September 16 meeting the PA was trying to generate escape plans from reaching a binding agreement with Olmert, while at the same time avoiding being blamed for not reaching a final status agreement.
“SE [PA Negotiator Saeb Erekat] thinks there are three ways [Abbas] could respond: (1) Give [Olmert] our Framework Agreement on Permanent Status, (2) Issue general communique about Annapolis progress, (3) Simply say no to the offer,” one September 9, 2008 memo from Hala Rasheed read.
“He wants us to think up other ways to respond. Whatever we propose, he wants to make sure that: (a) we are not blamed, (b) [negotiations] are uninterrupted, and (c) no submission is made that we cannot retract.”
A memo to other NSU members dated September 16 from Wassim Khazmo, a communications adviser on the PA negotiating team, revealed that Palestinians intended to treat the September 16 meeting as “ceremonial” rather than directed toward advancing negotiations and possibly reaching a peace agreement.
“In order to avoid the blame game, the President today is going with a positive attitude, where he will ask more questions from Olmert on his offer, and he will tell him that the Palestinians will respond later,” Khazmo wrote.
Khazmo was particularly concerned that Abbas avoid what he described as “Olmert’s media stunts.”
Even after the September 16 meeting failed to culminate in a peace deal, Rice said that she continued to push hard for talks, “worried that there might never be another chance like this one.”
Her memoirs, however, are silent on the revelation in the Palestine Papers that the Palestinians were concerned by her insistence on advancing the peace plan.