The Palestinians also know how to miss opportunities

Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

US President Trump’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority creates expectations for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To assess the likelihood of such a breakthrough, it is necessary to analyze the Israeli and Palestinian positions. This time I will focus on the Palestinian side.

While meeting Trump in the US, PA President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly presented the maps from the negotiations he conducted with prime minister Ehud Olmert a decade ago, proposing that the US president use them as a starting point for renewed peace talks. The Palestinian team told Trump that the differences between Israeli and Palestinian positions during that round of negotiations had not been so significant, and that Israel’s position on the borders issue at that time is “a good starting point for negotiations.” If this is in fact the position Abbas expressed to Trump, it sheds new light on the Abbas-Olmert talks and shows that the Palestinians’ rejection of Olmert’s offer was a mistake.

The Olmert-Abbas talks were conducted as part of the Annapolis process, which was launched at an international conference attended by almost 50 countries in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007. No fewer than 12 committees were established to discuss core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the main negotiations took place between Olmert and Abbas, and between foreign minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei. The most significant progress in those talks was achieved on the borders issue: Olmert proposed that Israel would annex 6.5% of the West Bank (including Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Ze’ev, Ariel and the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem), and in return would give the Palestinians Israeli territory equivalent to 5.8% of the West Bank. The remaining 0.7% would be designated to create a safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which would be sovereign Israeli territory but under Palestinian control.

The Palestinians demanded full control over all the 1967-occupied areas, but were willing to agree to land swaps for up to 1.9% of the West Bank, which would not include most of the above-mentioned settlements (except for Gush Etzion). Olmert also proposed a compromise in the Old City of Jerusalem: the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter would remain under Israeli sovereignty, while the Holy Basin (including al-Haram al-Sharif) would be subject to international control, similar to the status of the Vatican. No progress was made on the refugee issue in these talks, as Olmert and Livni presented a tough position.

The Olmert-Abbas talks were interesting not only for their content – a revolutionary Israeli offer in terms of the concessions it included – but also for how they ended. Olmert’s far-reaching offer, supplemented by detailed maps, was made in September 2008, after he had been forced to resign, and when US president George Bush had only a few months left in office. Abbas never replied to Olmert’s final offer. According to the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, president Bush made a last-ditch effort to salvage the negotiations by suggesting that Israel and the Palestinians deposit their positions as reached during the talks, so that these would serve as the starting point for future negotiations under the following US administration and Israeli government. Abbas was scheduled to meet Bush and discuss this in January 2009, but the meeting never took place due to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza.

Several factors were behind Abbas’ hesitance about Olmert’s offer. First, Abbas was concerned that the Israeli government, in its final days, would not be capable of ratifying any agreement; second, Livni had hinted to him that he might be able to improve his position in negotiations with the next Israeli government – possibly with Livni as prime minister. third, the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas made it difficult for Abbas to adopt a position that might be perceived as excessively conciliatory and met with harsh criticism. Finally, Abbas lacked the courage to make such a dramatic decision.

Abbas clearly missed this opportunity to consolidate his understandings with Olmert. The Obama administration would have easily supported them, and would have likely made them the foundation of official American policy, which future administrations would find it hard to reverse. Although the Netanyahu government, which succeeded Olmert’s, presumably would have rejected Olmert’s position as a legitimate end-game (let alone starting point) for negotiations, in that case international diplomatic pressure would have mobilized against Israel, not the Palestinians. Today, almost 10 years after the Olmert-Abbas talks, Abbas is now reportedly reverting to Olmert’s proposal, but this time the circumstances – and the president in the White House – are very different.

Abbas’s missed opportunity can be seen retrospectively as part of a pattern of Palestinian behavior. Their greatest mistake was Haj Amin al-Husseini’s rejection of the 1947 partition plan. Behind closed doors, Palestinian negotiators admitted to this grave historical error. Yasser Arafat also carries some responsibility, for rejecting the Clinton Parameters, which were presented to him in December 2000, days before president Bill Clinton left office. The Israeli government, headed by Ehud Barak, accepted the parameters with reservations, but Arafat rejected them altogether, despite Arab and international pressure. Perhaps the historical lesson of these episodes is that the Palestinian leadership should think long and hard before rejecting offers.

Trump’s visit to the region has triggered new expectations for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet, Netanyahu and Abbas do not share mutual trust or intimacy, the gap between their positions is deep and both face domestic challenges from extremists at home. A sober analysis would lead to the conclusion that the chances for progress in the peace process are low. But, as Winston Churchill once said: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; the optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Let us remain optimistic.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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