The belief that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is inches away or perhaps only one long negotiating session away never dies. Not even 64 years after the birth of the state of Israel and 45 years after Israel’s conquest of Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem in 1967.
This delusion is fed by leaders who have reasons for propagating it, and the latest is former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Driven from office by a combination of Israeli disappointment with the results of the 2006 war in Lebanon, over which he presided, and corruption accusations (but no convictions in any of the cases yet), Olmert is trying to defend his reputation. In an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv this month he expanded on some previous claims, and his words were widely discussed. (See for example here and here.)
Here is Olmert, describing his negotiations with PLO chairman and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas:
I was within touching distance of a peace agreement. The Palestinians never rejected my offers. And even if on the thousandth time there are people who are going to try to say that they rejected my offers, the reality was otherwise. They didn't accept them, and there's a difference. They didn't accept them because the negotiations weren't concluded; they were on the verge of conclusion....The gaps were very small, we had already reached the very last final stretch.
This account is plain wrong. At the time, back in 2008, Olmert explained his proposal to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In her memoir No Higher Honor, she recounts what happened:
I worried that there might never be another chance like this one…. to have an Israeli prime minister on record offering those remarkable elements and a Palestinian president accepting them would have pushed the peace process to a new level. Abbas refused. We had one last chance. The two leaders came separately in November and December to say good-bye. The President took Abbas into the Oval Office alone and appealed to him to reconsider. The Palestinian stood firm, and the idea died.
Then there is the Palestinian version, which was offered in early 2009 by the chief Palestinian negotiator then and now, Saeb Erekat. In a debate televised on Al Jazeera, Erekat went on at length and explained that there was really no chance Abbas was going to accept Olmert’s proposal:
The Palestinian negotiators could have given in in 1994, 1998, or 2000, and two months ago, brother Abu Mazen could have accepted a proposal that talked about Jerusalem and almost 100% of the West Bank....Let me recount two historical events, even if I am revealing a secret. On July 23, 2000, at his meeting with President Arafat in Camp David, President Clinton said: 'You will be the first president of a Palestinian state, within the 1967 borders - give or take, considering the land swap - and East Jerusalem will be the capital of the Palestinian state, but we want you, as a religious man, to acknowledge that the Temple of Solomon is located underneath the Haram Al-Sharif.' Yasser Arafat said to Clinton defiantly: 'I will not be a traitor. Someone will come to liberate it after 10, 50, or 100 years. Jerusalem will be nothing but the capital of the Palestinian state, and there is nothing underneath or above the Haram Al-Sharif except for Allah.' That is why Yasser Arafat was besieged, and that is why he was killed unjustly.
In November 2008…Olmert offered the 1967 borders, but said: 'We will take 6.5% of the West Bank, and give in return 5.8% from the 1948 lands, and the 0.7% will constitute the safe passage, and East Jerusalem will be the capital, but there is a problem with the Haram and with what they called the Holy Basin.' Abu Mazen too answered with defiance, saying: 'I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar. I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine - the June 4, 1967 borders - without detracting a single inch, and without detracting a single stone from Jerusalem, or from the holy Christian and Muslim places.' This is why the Palestinian negotiators did not sign…
Olmert’s proposal, which Erekat describes reasonably accurately, would have given the Palestinians 99.3 percent of the land area they claim in the West Bank, swapping land in Israel proper for areas taken for the major settlement blocs. Moreover, he offered to take a small number of “refugees” and to divide Jerusalem. Indeed he even offered to end Israeli control over the Old City, which under his plan was to have been administered jointly by the United States, Jordan, Israel, the PLO, and Saudi Arabia. I doubted then and still do now that this plan would have been acceptable to Olmert’s own cabinet or to the Knesset, leaving Israel in a terrible position had the Palestinians not rejected it. Had the PLO said yes, and the cabinet or Knesset rejected Olmert’s secret proposal when he explained it publicly, Israel would forever be blamed because “Israel rejected peace.” Abbas saved Israel from that because he was unwilling to contemplate difficult compromises, knowing that Hamas and others would call such compromises treason.
Olmert may say the Palestinians never turned him down, but that is not their version nor is it Rice’s. Let’s grant him that they never came back to him and said, “No! Never!” and he still loses the argument. Olmert then claims that time simply ran out (which is not Erekat’s version at all) when the “gaps were very small.” But they were not. No agreement would ever have been possible without extensive security conditions and immense amounts of detail; the text and annexes of the left-wing peace proposal of 2003 called the “Geneva Initiative,” bitterly resented by Ariel Sharon, were 500 pages long even though the Initiative’s security section was itself quite brief.
Olmert may have believed he was on the verge of peace and “in the very last final stretch,” but there is no evidence for this claim—and all the available evidence suggests that at Camp David the problem was a Palestinian leader who was unwilling to say yes and sign. We are today where we were in 2008 after the Annapolis meeting, or in 2000 after Camp David: The most any Israeli government can offer is less than the least any Palestinian leader is willing to take. That is why the statements of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta last fall, telling Israelis and Palestinians to “just get to the damn table,” were so foolish. The gap that separates them remains a chasm, and bridging it is helped neither by demands for new negotiations that cannot today succeed, nor by fanciful accounts of past sessions.