Lesson In Futility?

05.28.13

What Commentary Gets Wrong About Olmert-Abbas Negotiations

We offered them compromise and they came back with violence. They never miss a chance to miss an opportunity.

The latest installment in this melodrama, according to Jonathan Tobin of Commentary, was Ehud Olmert's offer to Mahmoud Abbas in September of 2008, which Abbas presumably rejected. Olmert's "lesson" should not be lost on John Kerry and "American and Jewish apologists" who think the peace process is worth our time, or that, oh, I don't know, things like settlements are obstacles to peace.

And the occasion for Tobin's reinforcement of Olmert's lesson is the latter's new interview with Avi Issacharoff in The Tower, provocatively entitled "Exclusive: Olmert: 'I Am Still Waiting For Abbas To Call.'" "For the first time," Issacharoff reports, "Olmert himself is revealing the full details of the proposal," a peace plan "the Palestinians rebuffed." For Tobin, this interview is definitive. "Abbas could not take yes for an answer." Kerry is on "a fool's errand."

The language here is so impacted with narcissism, I suppose I may be forgiven for noticing, first, that word "exclusive." For there is nothing—zero, nada, zip!—in the Olmert interview with Issacharoff that Olmert did not detail for me and The New York Times Magazine over two years ago, or simultaneously reveal in his Hebrew memoir, or broadly imply to others before me, including to Aluf Benn, Issacharoff's editor at Haaretz (which had induced me to ask Olmert for a detailed plan in the first place). Issacharoff should have said, "For the second, perhaps third, time, Olmert himself is revealing, etc.," but Israeli journalists often behave as if they have nothing to learn from what foreign publications print about their country.

In any case, there is clearly more at stake here than who scooped whom. Had Issacharoff read (or admitted to reading) the Times piece, he would have had to provide Tobin and Commentary a much less convenient lesson. It is false to state that Abbas rebuffed Olmert's plan. It is false to say that the Palestinians were unwilling to pursue further negotiations in the wake of Olmert's offer. (Indeed, neither conclusion can be inferred even from what Issacharoff quotes Olmert saying, but never mind.)

On the contrary, both Olmert and Abbas emphasized to me that neither side rejected the plan; both understood that they had the basis for a continuing negotiation. Abbas made clear, as did Saeb Erekat, that the Palestinian side accepted (with General James Jone's assistance) security arrangements acceptable to Olmert. The Palestinians also accepted the principle that the Holy Basin would be under a kind of transnational custodianship. The sides agreed to refer to the Arab Peace Initiative (which itself refers to UN Resolution 194) to launch negotiations about the number of Palestinians who'd come back to Israel under the "right of return."

They did not agree yet on a number; and, swap or no swap, Abbas did not accept the border as Olmert had mapped it out, with Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, and Efrat—that is 5.9 percent of the West Bank—incorporated into Israel. The Palestinians wanted a plan in which 1.9 percent would be Israeli, which would allow 62 percent of settlers to remain in place. But closing such gaps is what just American mediation would be for. In fact, negotiations to close them did ensue, though informally, at the Baker Institute at Rice University, where former Israeli officials and one of Palestine's negotiators, Samih Al-Abid (whom I also interviewed), floated ideas in the 4 percent range.

Why did Abbas not come back immediately with a counter-proposal? Well, from Abbas's point of view, Olmert's was the counter-proposal. Erekat had proposed 1.9 percent. Abbas hoped Obama would be elected and some new mediator might be more sympathetic to the Palestinians when it was time to close the deal. Yes, there is continuing disagreement between Olmert and Abbas about why that negotiation did not ensue, formally, and immediately, after Olmert's offer on September 16; or why the sides did not meet in Washington during the first week in January, 2009. Erekat insisted to me that he was willing to go to Washington to meet with Shalom Turgeman, in spite of the Gaza operation, and that Condoleezza Rice could confirm this; Olmert says the invitation was muddled and, besides, this was all too late.

Suffice it to say that Abbas first wanted to see if Obama would indeed be elected. But then the border with Gaza started heating up, and Olmert, though already a lame-duck, thought he could actually advance peace (and help Abbas, in a way) by undermining Hamas's strategic capabilities along the Philadelphia Corridor. Then, the sheer bloodiness of the war eclipsed everything; and by the time the two leaders might have come together, revulsion for Israel's leaders on the West Bank, and Livni's emergence as Olmert successor, etc., made Olmert's and Abbas's plans moot.

The one story Issacharoff does reveal for the first time to English audiences—which is lovely, and I could not use for reasons of space—is how Olmert first got Abbas to come to the Prime Minister's residence late in 2006, that is, by telling him that his wife had prepared all of his favorite dishes and that Abbas would insult her by not showing up. However, the real poignancy of this story has a background Issacharoff does not reveal, namely, that Olmert (so he told me) had been in several meetings with Abbas and Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, in which Sharon treated Abbas so bullyingly that Olmert himself cringed but, alas, had to remain silent; that Olmert knew he would have to make a gesture to Abbas to prove he was not approaching things as his former boss did.

Which brings me to the main point. There was, and is, no disagreement between Olmert and Abbas that American diplomacy might have picked up from where they had left off. They also agreed that it was Netanyahu who said "No way" as soon as he came into office in the spring of 2009. Tobin might consider why Netanyahu has repudiated what Abbas and Olmert achieved, not why Abbas did not just take a deal, on Israel's political schedule, that he reasonably sought to improve.

In fairness to Issacharoff, many of whose Haaretz pieces I admire, he needs no instruction from me about Netanyahu's rejectionism or Olmert's frustration with it. But he curiously chose to leave all of this out in reporting the interview. For his part, Olmert told Issacharoff—with a touch of bravado meant to evoke what Dayan had said of King Hussein—that he is still "waiting for a call from Abbas," though the two have spoken warmly about private matters since the fall of 2008, and Olmert continues to view Abbas with respect and as a potential partner.

What Olmert really means, as he prepares to get back into the political fray, is that he is hoping, understandably, for Abbas to publicly join him in endorsing the principles they had negotiated, something that might strengthen Olmert's moral prestige internationally, and with the Israeli public. Given memories of the carnage in Gaza, and Olmert's subsequent political losses, Abbas—also understandably—is reluctant to make any public declarations outside of Kerry's channels.

Still, Olmert has told me (and everyone who'll listen) that he cannot understand why the Obama administration still does not publicly embrace the Olmert-Abbas agenda and rally the EU to it the way he had wanted to. He told Issacharoff that Abbas is "no big hero," which in context is a kind of Olmertian compliment. The times call for diplomacy and consensus building, not heroism. The threat to Israel from international isolation requires nothing more than common sense.

A final caveat. I don't mean to imply that the "core issues" Olmert and Abbas dealt with are the final ones. I have argued here and elsewhere that the confederal approach the two leaders tiptoed up to in Jerusalem, over security, the international commission on refugees, etc., will have to be deepened and expanded if a two-state solution will ever be made plausible. Business leaders must get involved to push interdependence, as some have done this week at the World Economic Forum. Good faith can produce creative plans for reciprocity and greater integration. Olmert is surely right about the need, at times, for "creative ambiguity" in reconciling practical interests.

Then again, to expect good faith from Commentary is probably not wise. Tobin's sly effort to turn Issacharoff's over-hyped interview into a replay of what Benny Morris did with Camp David 2, namely, place the blame for the failure of serious peace initiatives on the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, does no justice to history, or Olmert's own intentions, for that matter.

Olmert should indeed be taken seriously. With Yair Lapid losing altitude, Olmert may well emerge as the centrist voice to organize Global Israel and the peace camp; readers will not be surprised to know that I wish him well. I dare say Olmert has learned many lessons over the years and has many yet to teach. Condescending to Palestinians is not one of them.