A blow to the chances for peace

Abbas not only proved incapable of accepting Olmert's offer; he also distorted it.

olmert abbas close 298.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert abbas close 298.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations launched by the Annapolis meeting of late 2007 never seemed to have a serious chance of success. The leaders on all sides - Israeli, Palestinian and American - were either too weak or too disinterested. Some supporters of the negotiations, which lasted throughout most of 2008, went so far as to argue that even hopeless talks were important as a means of underpinning the security and economic confidence-building measures being implemented simultaneously in the West Bank. And if the talks did somehow succeed, their outcome was in any case destined by Annapolis to become a "shelf agreement" that awaits completion of phase 1 of the road map and the restoration of PLO rule in the Gaza Strip. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently discussed with the American press (in interviews in The Washington Post on May 29 and Newsweek of June 13, respectively) the extent to which they actually reached agreement in their 2008 negotiations. The "product" they describe is roughly similar to the Clinton parameters of 2000, the Taba agreements of early 2001 and the unofficial Geneva Initiative of 2003. Bearing in mind the two leaders' apparent inability to even contemplate implementing an agreement, these appear to be the not-so-original details of yet another virtual exercise in peacemaking. PERHAPS THE PROTOCOLS the leaders left behind will prove useful for future peacemakers. But we also have to hope that the ultimate failure of their negotiations will not negatively affect the willingness of the next generation of leaders to try again. Personally, this is why I opposed the Annapolis process: To engage in negotiations that have no chance of reaching fruition and success is liable to mean adding yet another layer of failure to the increasingly depressing structure of abortive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking enterprises. That is liable to deter rather than assist the next set of negotiators. How many more times will Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree to risk their political careers and perhaps their lives and reinvent the very same peace wheel, only to see it fall off its axle? Olmert says he offered Abbas 93.5 percent to 93.7% of the West Bank, along with 5.8% in land swaps and a Gaza-West Bank safe passage corridor. Abbas recalls the offer as 97%. Both agree that Israel agreed to accept a small number of Palestinian refugees, with Olmert adding that he rejected the right of return and offered limited return to Israel as a "humanitarian gesture." Olmert also offered to, in effect, internationalize the Jerusalem Holy Basin. Olmert's interviewer reports that Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat "confirmed that Olmert had made the offer... [Olmert] was serious." Erekat claims the Palestinians needed time to study Olmert's offer and prepare a reply and that time ran out when Olmert resigned and Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. But that's not what Abbas says (nor has anyone in his entourage denied what he told The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl) - and this is the troublesome part for anyone examining this negotiating experience for clues as to future chances of success. Every so often, a national leader makes statements in an interview that redefine his position on the world stage. Abbas appears to have done this. Abbas chose to interpret whatever statement of empathy Olmert made about the refugees - the effort he apparently undertook to offer the Palestinians some sort of psychological closure regarding the events of 1948 - as acceptance of the right of return, while Olmert understood he was saying the opposite and rejecting the right of return. Abbas looks at an offer of virtually the entire territory of the West Bank, internationalization of the disputed holy sites in Jerusalem and (according to him) the right of return, turns it down and says "the gaps were wide." CAN WE be blamed for suspecting that we really do not have a partner for a two-state deal? This is very bad news indeed. Abbas is about as moderate as the Palestinian leadership gets. Olmert proved to be about as moderate as the Israeli leadership gets, placing himself on a par with Yossi Beilin, the chief Israeli architect of the Geneva Initiative. I know of no other Israeli leader who would wish to offer the Palestinians even more in order to close the gap. I myself would not have offered as much: I believe Palestinians must accept an unequivocal Israeli position that the right of return contradicts the very spirit of a two-state solution. I also would argue that the West Bank-Gaza safe passage corridor is "worth" a lot more than around 1% of the "swaps" calculation, if only because a Palestinian state cannot survive without it. Be that as it may, I can only hope that somewhere, waiting in the wings, is the Palestinian leader capable of broadly accepting at least Olmert's offer - and without distorting it. Or that some sort of international leadership, Arab or American, will prove ready and able to persuade the Palestinian leadership and public to make the necessary concessions. Otherwise, the chances of a successful two-state breakthrough in the near future were definitely reduced by Abbas' statements. The writer is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. bitterlemons.org