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Mahmoud Abbas' Historical Missed Opportunity

Had Abbas accepted the Olmert government’s proposals on borders, land swaps and a West Bank to Gaza corridor in 2008, they would have become U.S. policy, from which any future administration could not easily retreat

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 3, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on May 3, 2017.Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

The lede of the top story in Haaretz on May 9 declared that Mahmoud Abbas showed Donald Trump maps from talks with the Israeli government during the term of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as a starting point for talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The report quoted an unnamed senior Palestinian official as saying that the Palestinian president and his aides told the U.S. president that at the time, the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian positions were not great, and that the position on the issue of borders was “a good starting point for any negotiations.” If this is indeed the position Abbas presented to Trump, it sheds new light on the Palestinian leader’s talks with Olmert in 2008, showing how the Palestinians made a big blunder in not accepting Olmert’s proposals.

In the wake of the 2007 Annapolis Conference, which was attended by representatives from close to 50 countries, direct talks were initiated between Israel and the Palestinians. No fewer than 12 committees discussed core issues of the conflict, but the main track was the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas, with talks between Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei occupying a secondary track.

The greatest progress was made with regard to borders: Olmert proposed that Israel annex 6.5 percent of the territory of the West Bank, including Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim, Givat Ze’ev and Ariel, as well as the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (including the newly-built Har Homa), in exchange for Israel’s transfer of land equivalent to 5.8 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The remaining 0.7 percent of territory would be given to the Palestinians as a safe passage route between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, under Israeli sovereignty but controlled by the Palestinians.

The Palestinians demanded complete control of areas not under Israeli control prior to 1967, but expressed a willingness for land swaps amounting to no more than 1.9 percent of the West Bank’s area. They rejected the inclusion of the abovementioned communities in this arrangement, with the exception of Gush Etzion.

Olmert also offered a conciliatory stance on Jerusalem: the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City would be under Israeli sovereignty, while the so-called Holy Basin, including Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) would be under international control. Olmert and Livni were tough with regard to the return of Palestinian refugees, and little progress was made on this issue.

The talks are also interesting for the manner in which they ended. Olmert’s far-reaching proposals came after he was compelled to tender his resignation, in September 2008. The second term of U.S. President George W. Bush was to end in January 2009. Abbas never responded to Olmert’s last proposal, which included maps. According to Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian lead negotiator to the talks, in a final push to rescue the talks Bush proposed that both sides leave their points of agreement with the Americans, to serve as the basis and starting point for future negotiations. A meeting between Abbas and Bush was scheduled for early in January 2009, but it was canceled due to Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas’ hesitation stemmed from several interrelated causes: One, fear that the moribund Israeli government at the time would be unwilling or incapable of approving an arrangement. Two, hope to get more for the Palestinians than in the understanding reached with Olmert, particularly in light of Livni’s signals that Abbas would do well to wait until after Israel’s election, in February. Three, the Fatah-Hamas rivalry made it hard for Abbas to embrace an overly conciliatory position. In the end, he was incapable of taking such a dramatic decision.

In any case, it’s clear that Abbas missed an opportunity to concretize the understandings reached with the Olmert government. No doubt the Clinton and Obama administrations would have found it easy to adopt these understandings; they would have become official U.S. policy, from which any future administration could not easily retreat. We can assume, however, that the Netanyahu government would not have accepted Olmert’s position as the finish line, much less the starting line, of negotiations with the Palestinians. In that situation, the international pressure would have shifted from the Palestinians to Israel. And so, nearly a decade after the Olmert-Abbas talks, Abbas returns to the border proposals that were offered then, under different circumstances and with a different U.S. president.

Abbas’ missed opportunity does not stand alone. It is part of a Palestinian behavior pattern. Their greatest error was the refusal of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini to accept the United Nations partition plan of 1947. (In private conversations with Israelis, Palestinian negotiators have more than once admitted that this was indeed a historic misstep.) Yasser Arafat also missed an opportunity when, in December 2000, he rejected the Clinton Parameters that the Barak government accepted, albeit with reservations.

Trump’s visit to Israel and the region creates new expectations for progress in the peace process. Ranged against a new and determined U.S. president are two battle-proven veterans who share no intimacy or trust, both of them challenged by extremist elements within their own camps. A cold and sober analysis suggests that the chances for progress are slim, but as Churchill once said: “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” One must remain optimistic.

Prof. Elie Podeh teaches in the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a member of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

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