A Sunday confession

Why didn't the Palestinians jump at the generous deal Olmert was offering?

Olmert cabinet frowns 22 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Olmert cabinet frowns 22
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Something extraordinary happened at yesterday's cabinet meeting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blamed his government's failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians on … the Palestinians. The premier has been obsessively hammering home the message that peace requires painful concessions from Israelis. He stressed it again yesterday. "Israel," he said, "will need to make unprecedented dramatic and painful concessions in order to reach peace …" But he also acknowledged that an accommodation requires Palestinian concessions - concessions, he bitterly reported, that they were not prepared to make. Olmert has been working on a deal that would require practically a total withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines. Most West Bank Jewish communities would be uprooted. Strategic settlement blocs - presumably Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, all in close proximity to the Green Line - would be annexed in return for giving the Palestinians an equal amount of land in southern Israel. On Jerusalem, Olmert has purportedly offered to transfer to Palestinian sovereignty Arab neighborhoods that encircle Jerusalem on the east, north and south. The holy places would be administered by an international body. And a tunnel or bridge would connect the Gaza Strip and the West Bank so that "Palestine" had territorial contiguity. Where Olmert drew a firm red line was in his demand that the Palestinians abandon the so-called right of return - meaning refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants could not "return" to Israel, only to "Palestine," so as not to demographically overwhelm the Jewish state. With his stewardship drawing to a close, Olmert publicly declared that the failure to reach a deal was "first and foremost the result of the Palestinian leaders' weakness, lack of will and lack of courage... Everything else is excuses and attempts to divert attention from the main issue. "We were ready to sign a peace agreement; the Palestinians, to my regret, did not have the courage to do so." WHY SAY this now? Perhaps to ensure history does not blame Olmert for the failure of the Annapolis process. Regrettably, Olmert also sought to commit the next government to resuming negotiations where he and Tzipi Livni left off. A smarter Israeli negotiating approach, from the get-go, would have been to caution the Palestinians that failure to reach an agreement with him might leave them having to start their talks with the incoming Netanyahu government from scratch. But let's leave in abeyance Olmert's peculiar reticence to publicly take his interlocutors to task until now, and his attempt to hamstring his successor, and ask: Why didn't the Palestinians jump at the generous deal Olmert was offering? Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a Palestinian negotiator, responded to Olmert's cabinet statement by saying that the real reason the talks failed is that Israel did not give the Palestinians everything they demanded. Plain and simple. This may be accurate - but it also means that even the most moderate Palestinians are not prepared to make the basic compromises necessary for a breakthrough. Many mainstream Israelis might have had a very hard time going along with Olmert's concessions. Yet the thought that relatively moderate Palestinians judge even these far-reaching compromises insufficient leaves those of us who support a two-state solution disenchanted. There are other possible reasons, beyond the one offered by Abu Rudeineh, as to why Abbas rejected Olmert's peace offer: • The Palestinians may not be interested in a deal if the price is giving up the "right of return" and/or leaving Israel with defensible boundaries. The implication: Even moderate Palestinians still want to destroy Israel, albeit in stages. • Abbas never prepared his people for the idea that they, too, would have to make painful concessions for peace. Implication: Either Abbas doesn't think he can sway Palestinian opinion or he thinks accepting Israel's "existence" is concession enough. • No deal is possible while Iran casts a shadow of rejectionism over the region, Hamas rules in Gaza and Hizbullah is ascendant in Lebanon. • Moderate Palestinians expect the Obama administration to force Israel into making concessions even Olmert thinks are too dangerous. Whatever the reason, the outcome - Palestinian intransigence - was all too sadly predictable.