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December 01, 2009

Olmert's Offer

olmert abbas shake.jpg

Many recall Ehud Barak's peace talks with Yasir Arafat, during which the late Palestinian leader rejected unprecedented offers that would have created a Palestinian state.

But a later peace offer by Ehud Olmert, which was rejected by current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, seems less embedded in the public consciousness. One possible reason for this lack of awareness is that, relative to the earlier Barak-Arafat negotiations, which were conducted under the media spotlight and detailed in books such as Dennis Ross's The Missing Peace, the specifics of the Olmert-Abbas negotiations have not been very well publicized.

Thanks to journalist Greg Sheridan's interview with the former Israeli prime minister, published Saturday in The Australian, more people know about the specifics of those peace talks.

Olmert explained:

"On the 16th of September, 2008, I presented him (Abbas) with a comprehensive plan. It was based on the following principles.

One, there would be a territorial solution to the conflict on the basis of the 1967 borders with minor modifications on both sides. Israel will claim part of the West Bank where there have been demographic changes over the last 40 years." [...]

In total, Olmert says, this would have involved Israel claiming about 6.4 per cent of Palestinian territory in the West Bank: "It might be a fraction more, it might be a fraction less, but in total it would be about 6.4 per cent. Israel would claim all the Jewish areas of Jerusalem. All the lands that before 1967 were buffer zones between the two populations would have been split in half. In return there would be a swap of land (to the Palestinians) from Israel as it existed before 1967.

"I showed Abu Mazen how this would work to maintain the contiguity of the Palestinian state. I also proposed a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. It would have been a tunnel fully controlled by the Palestinians but not under Palestinian sovereignty, otherwise it would have cut the state of Israel in two.

"No 2 was the issue of Jerusalem. This was a very sensitive, very painful, soul-searching process. While I firmly believed that historically, and emotionally, Jerusalem was always the capital of the Jewish people, I was ready that the city should be shared. Jewish neighbourhoods would be under Jewish sovereignty, Arab neighbourhoods would be under Palestinian sovereignty, so it could be the capital of a Palestinian state.

"Then there was the question of the holy basin within Jerusalem, the sites that are holy to Jews and Muslims, but not only to them, to Christians as well. I would never agree to an exclusive Muslim sovereignty over areas that are religiously important to Jews and Christians. So there would be an area of no sovereignty, which would be jointly administered by five nations, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian state, Israel and the United States.

"Third was the issue of Palestinian refugees." This issue has often been a seeming deal-breaker. The Palestinians insist that all Palestinians who left Israel - at or near the time of its founding - and all their spouses and descendants, should be able to return to live in Israel proper. This could be more than a million people. Olmert, like other Israeli prime ministers, could never agree to this: "I think Abu Mazen understood there was no chance Israel would become the homeland of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian state was to be the homeland of the Palestinian people. So the question was how the claimed attachment of the Palestinian refugees to their original places could be recognised without bringing them in. I told him I would never agree to a right of return. Instead, we would agree on a humanitarian basis to accept a certain number every year for five years, on the basis that this would be the end of conflict and the end of claims. I said to him 1000 per year. I think the Americans were entirely with me.

"In addition, we talked about creating an international fund that would compensate Palestinians for their suffering. I was the first Israeli prime minister to speak of Palestinian suffering and to say that we are not indifferent to that suffering.

"And four, there were security issues." Olmert says he showed Abbas a map, which embodied all these plans. Abbas wanted to take the map away. Olmert agreed, so long as they both signed the map. It was, from Olmert's point of view, a final offer, not a basis for future negotiation. But Abbas could not commit. Instead, he said he would come with experts the next day.

"He (Abbas) promised me the next day his adviser would come. But the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said we forgot we are going to Amman today, let's make it next week. I never saw him again."

(See also Mahmoud Abbas's interview with Washington Post Deputy Editorial Editor Jackson Diehl, which broadly corroborates Olmert's account of the offer.)

Posted by GI at December 1, 2009 11:11 AM


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