Olmert: Bush Offered to Absorb 100,000 Palestinian Refugees if Peace Deal Reached

In address to Geneva Initiative conference, former prime minister calls himself first Israeli leader to publicly recognize Palestinian plight; also hints Barak tried to thwart 'daring defense efforts', defends 'every word' of upcoming book.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday that the Bush administration had assured him that the United States would be willing to absorb some 100,000 Palestinian refugees immediately as American citizens, should Israel reach a permanent settlement with the Palestinian Authority.

The former premier told a Geneva Initiative conference in Tel Aviv that during negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 he had offered a solution to the refugee problem that would have been in line with the Arab League peace plan and promised that any measures would be the result of a coordinated agreement.

Former PM Ehud Olmert at Geneva Initiative conference, September 19, 2010
Mati Milstein

The Bush administration had offered this American contribution to the refugee problem as part of what would be a framework of international compensation, he said.

"I think that if the refugees - many of whom are already second or third generation [Palestinians] living outside of the territories – were given a choice between returning to Israel or the United States, we could guess what they would choose," he said.

Olmert emphasized that during his address to the Annapolis summit in 2007, he had become the first Israeli prime minister to publicly empathize with the suffering the Palestinians had endured over the years as a result of Israel's operations.

The former prime minister said that every ruling Israeli government must accept the fact that peace negotiations would be based on the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and would include a land exchange. Still, he stressed that both sides must realize that neither Palestinians or Israel would ever have full sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Olmert also said that the U.S. administration under Bush had accepted the "eight-point document" drafted by Israel's defense establishment, which included Israel's central security interests.

"Bush promised to pass this along to the Obama administration," Olmert said. "The Palestinians recognized this document and they were not opposed to a single one of its points."

'Barak tried to thwart daring defense efforts'

On a separate note, Olmert hinted during his address to the Geneva Initiative that Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to stop Israel from embarking on "daring defense efforts" during their time in government together.

Olmert defended to the audience an excerpt in his upcoming book, dealing with his relationship with Barak. Aides to the defense minister had lambasted Olmert over certain claims made in the book, which they called an effort to "rewrite history".

Olmert disclosed to the conference tensions he had held with Barak regarding Israel's security, indicating that the defense minister had favored avoiding certain important security operations.

"It is possible not to write who tried to foil daring defense efforts," he said. "Every word I wrote in my book is documented, certified, true and correct. The truth wins and that is my picture."

Aides to the defense minister had earlier denied one particular claim made in the excerpt, which was published in Yedioth Aharonoth over the weekend. In the chapter, Olmert refers to Barak as "irresponsible" and "irresolute" and says the latter begged him to join Kadima prior to the 2006 elections.

"Ehud Olmert is rewriting history," Barak's aides said. "Barak never asked Olmert or anyone else to join the Kadima list. Any contacts made with that regard were always at the initiative of Olmert and his associates, and were never discussed in any practical terms."

But in his address to a Geneva Initiative conference on Sunday night, Olmert insisted that his version of the events were true.

"When public figures write memoirs, there is always some indecision regarding how much they want to write of things as they were and how much they want to cut corners to avoid riling up others," Olmert said. "I decided to write my memoirs exactly as they were, and I will not digress – not when things are ill at ease and not when they are comfortable."

Barak refused to comment directly on Olmert's allegations on Sunday, saying only that they were: "pathetic remarks undeserving of response."