The Myths of Past Middle East Peace Negotiations
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was interviewed last Friday by CNN’s Christiana Ammanpour and sought to give his audience the impression that he had been on the verge of a historical peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, and only because of the interference of individuals from the US that brought in outside money, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was not reached.
Whatever his political motives, Olmert was feeding the international myth machine that Israelis and Palestinians were close to a historic breakthrough which needed to be bridged by muscular American diplomacy.
Leaving aside his dramatic accusations about millions of dollars that were transferred from what he called “the extreme right wing” in the US to hamper his peace initiative, Olmert was not even close to a final agreement, as he implied to his CNN audience. In fact, when carefully examined, Olmert’s secret talks with Abbas should be seen as the latest proof that the fundamental gaps between the most maximal concession made by an Israeli prime minister did not meet the minimal requirements of Abbas for an agreement. This was not the first time that the myth of an impending Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, that never happened, was widely promoted.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at end of the Taba talks issued a joint statement on January 27, 2001 when their meetings concluded, saying: “The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement..” Yet when Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami repeated this to a radio reporter from Kol Yisrael, Muhammad Dahlan responded immediately afterwards by saying Kharta Barta (slang for baloney).
The EU representative Miguel Moratinos even wrote in his internal report on Taba that “serious gaps remain” between the parties. Looking back over the last decade and a half, there has been a strong tendency to overstate what exactly has been accomplished in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. David Makovsky, who in the 1990’s served as a diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz before going to the Washington Institute, wrote in 2003 that he had interviewed Major General Shlomo Yanai, who disclosed to him that the security committee at Taba hardly convened and that the parties not only did not progress on the issue of security, but rather there was “retrogression.” In short, the parties were not closer than ever.
Nevertheless the myth that Israel and the Palestinians had been on the verge of an imminent breakthrough persisted. What do we know about Olmert’s talks with Abbas in 2008? First, there was no actual agreement between the two. Olmert made a proposal to Abu Mazen in 2008, that he never made public in its entirety. Instead, Olmert provided certain details of his ideas in various interviews that he subsequently gave. His office told Haaretz in December 2009 that “for reasons of national responsibility, we cannot relate to the content of the map and the details of the proposal.” The most detailed version of the Olmert proposal was detailed in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine by Bernard Avishai.
In language reminiscent of the end of the Taba talks, Olmert told Avishai: “We were very close, more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians.” But was Olmert’s description accurate? Avishai writes that Olmert used “constructive ambiguity” to deal with the toughest issues like the Palestinian refugees. Abbas told the Washington Post in May 2009 that it was his understanding that Olmert accepted the principle of the “right of return.” Yet, Olmert told Avishai two years later that the exact number of refugees that would return was still subject to further negotiation.
How could this obvious gap lead Olmert to conclude that he was “very close” to completing an agreement with Abbas? In the area of security, the Olmert proposals were even more troubling. Abbas told Avishai in the New York Times that “the file on security is closed.” But he then added “we do not claim it was an agreement but the file was finalized.” How was security “finalized” without without an agreement between the parties on such an important topic? Abbas explained that the Israeli security concerns had been worked out with General James Jones, Rice’s security advisor, but not with Israel. Unfortunately, Olmert did not seem to have a problem with this. Indeed, according to Condoleezza Rice’s memoirs, Olmert told her that the IDF had “a list of demands” and that “some of them are probably okay.” But there were Israeli security requirements that the Palestinians would not accept. Olmert asked that the US work this out with the Palestinians.
What eventually occurred was that Palestinians worked with General Jones, but they stopped coming to their bilateral meetings with Israeli officers.This arrangement watered down the security arrangements that Israel would obtain in the Olmert period. Historically, Israel sought after 1967 to retain territories that were vital to its defense, like the Jordan Valley. That was the essence of the famous Allon Plan that had been embraced by Prime MInister Yitzhak Rabin. Then the idea arose in the last decade, that the IDF could be deployed in those vital areas, instead of annexing them, even if you end up with extraterritorial Israeli military deployments inside of a Palestinian state. Rice explains in her memoirs that she thought of removing the Israeli army from those locations and putting in international forces, or even NATO.
This was reflected in the positions taken by her envoy, General Jones. Thus with Olmert’s initiative, the idea that Israel should defend itself by itself, which had been enshrined for decades, was seriously undermined. There are different versions about what Olmert intended for Jerusalem, each more problematic than the next. He told Bernard Avishai that he was willing to give up Israeli sovereignty over what he called the Holy Basin–an area including the Old City, with the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives and the area of the City of David. Did these concessions bring Olmert as close to a final agreement as he claims? Rice write in her memoirs that Abu Mazen “refused” to accept Olmert’s offer, even after President Bush appealed to him to reconsider his position. In 2009, Abbas was interviewed by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and explained why he could not take Olmert’s offer to the Palestinians: “The gaps were too wide.” Why is this question about the Olmert proposals important today? No matter who wins the upcoming US elections, the next administration will seek to shape an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative and push the parties to accept it.
After the failure of Camp David and Taba, the US foreign policy establishment was locked on to trying to go back to these proposals that plainly did not work. Alternatives were not even considered. In 2010, former President Clinton wrote in the New York Times, that because of past diplomacy and Olmert’s initiative, “everyone knows what a final agreement would look like.” Unfortunately, misinformed American presidents who are led to believe that a peace agreement was within our grasp, inevitably launch initiatives based on the terms that they heard were agreed to, only to end up clashing with their Israeli allies and walking away with a diplomatic embarrassment. Despite his tarnished reputation, Olmert’s appearances reinforce this impression that there was a full Israeli-Palestinian deal that once existed, that now needs to be revived.
Moreover, Israel is in a very different situation today than it was when these peace proposals were made in the past. Israelis have gone through a second intifada with suicide bomb attacks in the heart of their cities, the failure of a Gaza withdrawal that led to a massive escalation of rocket attacks on southern Israel, and an Arab Spring that has demonstrated the fragility of the regimes with which Israel has signed peace treaties as well as the probability that they could be replaced by Islamist elements. Under these circumstances, Israeli security needs in future negotiations must be stressed harder and not subcontracted to envoys from any country. What is required instead is an alternative diplomatic strategy, and a more secure path for achieving Middle East peace, rather than trying to revive the a formula that has only led to diplomatic failure.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.