As prime minister, Ehud Olmert met 36 (or was it 37?) times with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and couldn’t reach an agreement with him. But that didn’t stop him from saying in a recent interview on Channel 2 that he’s certain Abbas is a partner for an accord.
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Olmert was prepared to go further than any other Israeli leader in meeting the Palestinians’ demands, including on the issues of Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and territorial exchanges; he offered to evacuate 70,000 settlers as well as make a humanitarian gesture allowing 5,000 Palestinian refugees (or their descendants) to return. This underscored his belief in the need for Israel to make a painful compromise, and given his own political past, his courage and determination was especially admirable.
But what came out of all that? When Olmert proposed in dozens of meetings that Abbas sign a document containing the Israeli concessions, he refused. Olmert explains this by saying that Abbas did not say either yes or no. This is patently ridiculous: By refusing to sign, Abbas clearly said no.
Evidently, Abbas was not ready to commit to anything, but he was able to get Olmert to consent to far-reaching concessions, and then halted the negotiations. The upshot is that when the negotiations resume, the Palestinian side will insist that they must begin “where they left off” – with the starting point being the Israeli positions as set forward in Olmert’s generous proposal, with no concession having been made by the other side.
Am I misinterpreting things? This is exactly what happened in 1995 in Yossi Beilin’s talks with Abbas. Then, too, the talks led to extensive Israeli concessions; then, too, the Israeli side sought to put things down on paper and fashion a final accord – and then, too, Mahmoud Abbas refused to sign. There was never any Beilin-Abbas Agreement. There was only a paper laying out Israeli concessions.
At Camp David, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton became fed up with this method and, as he ran out of patience, told Yasser Arafat that so far he had rejected every offer. Perhaps you have a proposal of your own, Clinton suggested to Arafat. But no such Palestinian proposal was ever placed on the table.
The Palestinians have never outlined their overall vision of an agreement, except, of course, in regard to the territorial issue. But on matters of crucial importance to Israel – forgoing the right of return, some form of recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state – the Palestinian leadership has clearly rejected the Israeli position. Though Abbas has stated that he personally has no desire to return to Safed, he has also declared that the Palestinians cannot give up the right of return, saying it is an “individual right.” And both Abbas and Saeb Erekat, his chief negotiator, have outright rejected all calls to accept Israel as the Jewish nation-state, citing the basic Palestinian position that the Jews are a religious community, not a nation.
Abbas’ refusal to sign a document with Olmert or Beilin has a clear implication: not that he is no partner for talks, but that he is an excellent partner for talks — as long as they are talks designed to lead Israel to make more and more concessions, and to put them in writing. Then, on one pretext or another, he is unwilling to sign and brings the negotiations to a halt, so they can be restarted in the future “where they left off”: with all the previous Israeli concessions included, and no concessions having been put forward by the Palestinian side.
In certain circles in Israel nowadays, having anything positive to say about Ehud Barak is considered heresy. But he did reach the correct conclusion from all this. His statement that he went to Camp David in 2000 to expose Arafat’s true face may be regarded with some skepticism. He went to that summit in the honest belief that his readiness to make major concessions, which endangered his political standing, would bear fruit. But when he saw that the Palestinians were prepared to do nothing but engage in negotiations that would squeeze more and more concessions from Israel, without committing to anything in return, he drew the proper conclusion.
One can understand Olmert and Beilin: It’s natural for the people conducting negotiations to fall in love with the process with which they are identified, and to be very eager for it to succeed. But they cannot, or will not, see what any nonpartisan observer is able to see, even if the sight is difficult and uncomfortable. (Full disclosure: This is very difficult for me, since I would much prefer to believe in the optimism of Olmert and Beilin, but it has no basis in reality.)
If a similar thing happens in the current negotiations as well, Israel will have to prepare an alternative to the ever-elusive comprehensive agreement: a serious proposal for interim or partial agreements, unilateral moves, a halt to more construction in the territories, and a willingness to acknowledge that even in the absence of a final agreement that officially ends the conflict, there are things that can be done to reduce the friction and bring about significant change – not only in Israel but also among the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement. It’s already happening in Cyprus, Kosovo and Bosnia. Perhaps this is all that’s possible here too – for now.