Olmert slams US focus on settlements

Former PM to 'Washington Post:' Emphasis on settlements a "mistake," may be costly to relations.

Bush olmert laugh 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Bush olmert laugh 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
A month after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any informal or oral agreements with Israel on the settlements that bound the US, former prime minister Ehud Olmert said that not only were there agreements, but that they were a precondition to the Annapolis process. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon reached understandings with the Bush administration regarding construction in the settlements as part of the road map, Olmert wrote in an op-ed piece that appeared in Friday's Washington Post. Under these understandings, he said, "no new settlements would be constructed; no new land would be allocated or confiscated for settlement construction; any construction in the settlements would be within current building lines; there would be no provision of economic incentives promoting settlement growth; the unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 would be dismantled (a commitment that Israel, regrettably, has not yet fulfilled)." These understandings created "a proper balance to allow essential elements of stability and normality for Israelis living in settlements until their future would be determined in a permanent-status agreement," Olmert said. He said he adopted those understandings and "followed them in close coordination with the Bush administration." Moreover, Olmert wrote, "during the run-up to Annapolis and in meetings there [in 2007], I elaborated to the US administration and the Palestinian leadership that Israel would continue to build in the settlements in accordance with the above criteria. "Let me be clear: Without those understandings, the Annapolis process would not have taken on any form. Therefore, the focus on settlement construction now is not useful." He bewailed that settlement construction issue now "commands the agenda" between the US and Israel, something he said served neither the diplomatic process with the Palestinians nor Israel's relations with the Arab world. "The focus on settlement construction, while ignoring the previous understandings, unjustly skews the focus from a true political process and from dealing with the real strategic issues confronting the region," he wrote. "Settlement construction should be taken off the public agenda and moved to a discrete dialogue, as in the past," he added. "This would enhance our bilateral relations and allow us to deal with the essential issues: the political process; preventing Iran's attempt to obtain nuclear weapons; eliminating Islamic extremist terrorism; and creating the necessary dialogue for normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world. The time to deal with such important matters is running out. We cannot waste what time we do have on non-priority issues." The Palestinians have made a complete settlement freeze a precondition for starting negotiations with the Netanyahu government, a precondition they never set for talks with any previous government. Olmert wrote that he did not understand "why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them. My proposal included a solution to all outstanding issues: territorial compromise, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees." Olmert said it would be "worth exploring the reasons" why the Palestinians rejected his proposal. "I believe it is crucial to review the lessons from the Palestinians' rejection of such an offer," he wrote In an interview last month with Newsweek, Olmert said he offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas 93.5 to 93.7 percent of the West Bank along with a land swap of 5.8% and a safe-passage corridor from Gaza to the West Bank that would make up the rest. He also agreed that the "holy basin" in Jerusalem would be under no sovereignty at all and administered by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans; and that while rejecting the Palestinian claim for a right of return for refugees or their descendants, he did offer to allow into Israel a small number of refugees as a "humanitarian gesture."