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Olmert's Unprecedented Offer

By Bernard Avishai; TPMCafé - New York,NY,USA

Date: 4.05.2009


Ehud Olmert has been telling anyone who will still listen that he and Mahmoud Abbas were "very close" to a settlement this past fall; that he presented the PA president a deal and map--in his words, a more generous offer than any ever made by an Israeli prime minister, and that Abbas "refused to sign."

Sources close to their conversations have now filled in the essential details of their talks. Journalists take note: If anything about the following account is mistaken, then it is up to Olmert, the putative maker of the offer, to confirm or deny things, point by point. The idea that these are delicate diplomatic negotiations, and must remain secret, is ridiculous. We are not speaking here about two private people negotiating the price of a rug in the bazaar.

Olmert and Abbas had little standing among their own citizens when they took on these talks; for both, negotiating was a kind of ongoing photo-op. Yet every clause of what Olmert offered has a moral idea behind it--therefore a public consequence to it. If Abbas rejected something, we should all have the chance to judge if we would have, too. Israeli politics are still suffering from Ehud Barak's warped account of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Then, too, Yasir Arafat was presumably made an offer of unprecedented generosity and he rejected it. The resulting meme was: "Israel offered Palestinians everything, and Palestinians came back with violence." This meme was not quarantined in time, and it has infected the talk of Israeli voters, journalists, and American "supporters" ever since.

HERE ARE THE details of Olmert's offer:

Prologue: Sources say there was never a document, formal or informal, presented to Abbas. Everything offered by Olmert was offered orally and provisionally, and with the specific proviso that Olmert's ideas were not endorsed either by Foreign Minister Livni or Defense Minister Barak.

1. Olmert offered an Israeli withdrawal from 96% of the West Bank, but he did not include Jerusalem in this calculation. Israel would compensate Palestine with a land swap amounting to 4% of Israeli territory: 2.5% would be Israeli land in the Negev added to the Gaza Strip, while 1.5% of Israeli land would be the area devoted to a land bridge between the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized.

(Note: Since Jerusalem was not included in the land calculation, Palestinians plausibly argue that withdrawal would really be from 94%. They argue, moreover, that the 1.5% devoted to a land bridge would actually be Israeli controlled. But leaving aside the arguable specifics of the withdrawal, it is clear from these numbers that Olmert--unlike Barak at Camp David in the summer of 2000--accepted the principle enshrined in the offer of the Arab League in 2002, that any deal would be based on the 1967 borders, that is, on the inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by force; that land would be exchanged 1:1. This is a principle which must be preserved in any final deal.)

2. Israel would, in return for the land given to Palestine, annex the territory of the major settlement blocs (including Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron, and Alfe Menashe), the Gush Etzion bloc, the town of Ariel in the Samarian hills, the land between Maale Adumim and East Jerusalem, and the towns hugging the 1967 border near Jerusalem, Har Adar and Givat Zeev.

(Note: A glance at a map shows that to retain especially Kiryat Arba, Ariel, and the territory between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, Israel would require sovereign roads and land bridges that cut the Palestinian state into four enclaves, two north of Jerusalem and two south of it, while cutting East Jerusalem from the descent to the Dead Sea. More important, these annexations would leave the most ruthless Israeli settlers in isolated pockets that are bound to become targets for ruthless insurgents on the Palestinian side. The only possible justification for these annexations is the Israeli government's distaste for confronting the settlers; defending them after a deal would serve as justification for all kinds of military escalations.)

3. Israel agrees to accept up to 30,000 refugees within its 1967 border. But this is a humanitarian gesture only. It does not in any way imply that Israel endorses the Palestinians "right of return."

(Note: The number itself is not very different from what was agreed to in the Taba Agreement and the Geneva Initiative. Those agreements recognized the Palestinian "right of return" in principle, but presented "modalities" for actualizing this right through resettlement in the Palestinian state and financial compensation. No Palestinian leader can come away from a negotiation without this principle being recognized; to abandon the right of return is something like denying the suffering of Palestinian refugees since 1948; indeed, the agreement of PA people to fulfill this right without returning to Haifa, Jaffa, and Acco was a major concession. For his part, Olmert once told me that he will never accept the right of return, since it implies that Israel was born in a great act of cruelty. But being cruel does not always make one wrong, and having a right does not mean actualizing it without regard to other rights. The Arab League Plan states that there must be an "agreed" solution for the refugees. It is time that all sides adopted the Taba and Geneva formulation as a way of meeting the conditions of the Plan, which Olmert did not.)

4. Jerusalem: Jewish neighborhoods would remain under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods would be transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. This would resolve all points of contention except for the disposition of the Old City, the so-called "holy basin." The latter would be subject to a trusteeship of four countries: Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

(Note: Of all of Olmert's reported offers, this seems to me the most creative and morally intelligent. The old city is, in effect, an international museum. The question of sovereignty is really a question of custodianship. It seems unimaginable that the mosques on the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) would ever be removed from the administration of the Muslim Waqf (religious administration). Nor would the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be removed from the administration of the various churches that have negotiated custodianship over generations. Nor would the Wailing Wall be removed from custodianship of the Israeli government. Making access open to all, and sovereignty something more international, is merely calling the grass green. And what would redeem our religions more than an all-sided willingness to share rather than to war? Finally, Saudi presence in the city's custodianship would not only establish a presence for the Arab League, but invite further Saudi investment in Jerusalem tourism, which will be Palestine's leading "export" sector for a generation.)

Olmert, it is true, cannot now make policy any more the leaders of the Geneva Initiative could. Out of power is out of power. But his offer provides yet another confirmation of the utilitarian calculus upon which any deal can be based.

Then again, the fate of his offer, and the political constraints surrounding it, prove once again that the time has passed for more negotiations. The time has come, rather, for the U.S. to fully embrace the Arab League Plan, fill in its blanks with derivatives from this calculus, rally Europe and the UN Security Council to its version of the Plan, and present it to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in a comprehensive package (international forces in Jerusalem, defense pact with Israel, investment plan for Palestine, etc.). The Plan should then be put to a referendum in both Israel and Palestine. Is it not obvious that this (and only this) can work, and that every day we do not install the Plan is another we drift toward Balkan style civil war and ethnic cleansing?