Abbas Says 'No' to Olmert

In diplomatic life, tension is always present between leaders' public statements and their privately expressed positions. Experience in the Israeli-Arab peace process teaches that what is said "outside" is more important. Politicians and diplomats can share a secret and be flexible when the door is closed, but the position that obligates them is the one they present to the TV cameras and in response to reporters' questions.

The article by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in The Wall Street Journal, published Friday, before what is possibly his last meeting with President George W. Bush, should be taken with the utmost seriousness. That is his latest platform, and it can be understood as a "no" to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's proposals. Abbas does not mention Olmert in the article, but it is clear whom he means: "Partial peace, as proposed again by my current interlocutors, is not the way forward. Partial freedom is a contradiction in terms. Either a Palestinian lives free or continues to live under the yoke of Israeli military occupation."

Olmert has tried to persuade Abbas over the past few weeks to accept his proposal for a "shelf agreement" that would present the outlines of a future Palestinian state. He revealed the principles of his proposal to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and to foreign statesmen. "The territorial price of an agreement with the Palestinians will bring us very close to a formula of 'one to one.' This should be said honestly and courageously," Olmert told MKs. "If we do not reach an agreement quickly, the price may be intolerable. The price of exchanging equal territories is less than what we will have to pay in the future."

Olmert went even further than his predecessors in his willingness to withdraw from the West Bank, but Abbas is not impressed. From his article, it may be understood that he utterly rejects Israel's security demands. Abbas views these demands as an attempt at continued Israeli control over the territories.

Abbas insists on full Palestinian sovereignty and independence for Palestine, and sharply criticizes continued construction in the settlements, which has been accelerated since the Annapolis conference. Sovereignty in Jerusalem must be divided, and the refugees should receive their "rights." Abbas warns against missing the opportunity for an agreement, but avoids denouncing terror. The Oslo Accords failed, he writes, because of the Israeli settlements, roadblocks and "correspondingly, by violent resistance to occupation by some Palestinians." The apparent conclusion is the maximum Israel is willing to offer is still far from the Palestinian minimum. Under such conditions, there is no chance of an agreement in the short time Olmert, Abbas and Bush have left in office.