There have been some suggestions, notably from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, that if only the two sides could knuckle down to the substance of their talks, and make rapid headway on the issue of where a border between Israel and a new Palestine might run, such progress would render irrelevant the complex questions of where exactly Israel, and for that matter the Palestinians, can and cannot build.
Editor's Notes: Caught by a red herring
Unwittingly or otherwise, in presenting an op-ed article for The Jerusalem Post last week that was plainly intended to encourage his successor Binyamin Netanyahu to make another dramatic attempt at peacemaking, former prime minister Ehud Olmert appeared to undermine this argument, to Abbas's detriment.
Urging Netanyahu to "transform the atmosphere" surrounding the troubled direct talks with the Palestinians, Olmert set out a series of generous positions he said Israel should take. He offered a formula for finalizing borders between Israel and Palestine, advocated that Israel agree to solve the Palestinian refugee issue within the framework of the Arab peace initiative, pressed for an Israeli withdrawal from Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem that would then serve as the capital of a sovereign Palestine, and spelled out terms for an "international trusteeship" to oversee Jerusalem's Holy Basin. This last concession would involve relinquishing Israeli sovereignty at the Western Wall and Temple Mount, in favor of a five-member non-sovereign body in which Israel would be joined by the US, the new Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Olmert wrote the article against the background of the current bitter controversy over Israel's now-lapsed 10-month settlement freeze. He lamented that the potentially marginal issue of the freeze had now taken center stage and was threatening to derail the barely resumed negotiations. A new Israeli offer, he argued, would refocus attention on the issues that really matter, the core points of dispute.
The truth, though Abbas's defenders are finding it convenient to overlook it, is that it was Abbas who chose to fritter away the first nine months of Netanyahu's unprecedented settlement freeze, declaring it inadequate or unsatisfactory, twisting this way and that in order to stay away from the negotiating table. This was hardly the behavior of a Palestinian leader desperate to reach an accommodation with the stable, widely supported Netanyahu government a government more capable than most any in recent Israeli history of delivering on a peace deal.
Still more significant, however, as a source close to Olmert confirmed to the Post last week, is the fact that the peace terms the former prime minister spelled out in his article reflect the very ideas that he put to Abbas at the conclusion of their two years of negotiations. Olmert, that is, in his discussions with Abbas, already set out his border proposals; already raised the Arab peace initiative framework for resolving the refugee issue; already indicated a readiness to transfer sovereignty to a new Palestine in Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem; already backed the idea of an international trusteeship for the Holy Basin. And Abbas did not rush enthusiastically to accept the terms.
As Olmert has made plain in other forums, in fact, Abbas neither accepted nor rejected those far-reaching proposals. Rather, he did not respond to them one way or the other.
The source close to Olmert who spoke to the Post expressed the conviction that Abbas "now regrets not responding."
But Abbas himself, most notably in a Washington Post interview last year, has characterized the gaps between his positions and Olmert's as being too wide. In other words, it wasn't that he didn't get around to formally saying "yes" to Olmert. Rather, he didn't get around to delivering a formal "no."
EHUD OLMERT'S advice notwithstanding, Netanyahu has made abundantly clear since taking office that he does not intend to reiterate previous offers made to the Palestinians by his predecessors.
While he has declared that he supports an independent Palestinian state, and has moved strikingly to help create improved economic conditions for such a state to take shape in the West Bank, he has also repeatedly stressed his aim to forge a permanent accord under better territorial terms for Israel than those proposed by several previous prime ministers. Specifically responding to Olmert's op-ed, furthermore, MKs close to the prime minister stated firmly that he would never relinquish sovereignty at the Western Wall or Temple Mount.
Netanyahu, as is his wont, has been attempting the near impossible in recent weeks as regards the settlement freeze: trying to keep everybody if not happy, then at least partially mollified. He publicly committed himself, when reluctantly assenting to the moratorium under American pressure 10 months ago, to a one-time only complete halt to building, and he refused to reverse that position this week by formally extending the freeze. At the same time, he has indicated that he is not looking to provoke further Palestinian and international criticism by supporting a push for the major expansion of the settlement enterprise.
There have been some suggestions, notably from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, that if only the two sides could knuckle down to the substance of their talks, and make rapid headway on the issue of where a border between Israel and a new Palestine might run, such progress would render irrelevant the complex questions of where exactly Israel, and for that matter the Palestinians, can and cannot build. But such readiness to knuckle down to the substantive issues is precisely what has been absent from this resumed peace process to date, and there's no doubting which side is responsible for that. Netanyahu was all but begging Abbas to come back to the peace table, month after spurned month. Had Abbas done so, had he entered the talks last winter, he and Netanyahu would have had a great deal of time to do precisely what Mubarak has recently advocated to make headway on the border issue before the question of a resumption of settlement building arose to trouble them again.
Netanyahu, and Israel, are now being roundly criticized internationally for not extending the settlement freeze. Many in Kadima, the opposition party that has pledged to provide a "safety net" should Netanyahu's coalition collapse around the issue of negotiated concessions, argue that Israel's wider interests require an ongoing freeze. Even within his own Likud party, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor has been advocating a resumption of building only within the settlement blocs where Israel envisages expanding its sovereignty under a permanent accord. And in these columns last Friday, fellow Likud minister Michael Eitan bitterly protested any allocation of further resources to areas in Judea and Samaria that the government has indicated it does not anticipate permanently retaining. Again, Netanyahu has intimated vaguely that he wants a sensitive approach to further building, but opted not to make any explicit promises.
EHUD OLMERT was right to lament the extent to which the issue of short-term construction in the settlements has come to dominate the peace process. The Obama administration has been central to that misdirected focus making demands of Israel, including for a freeze in all construction over the Green Line in Jerusalem, that even the Palestinians had not previously advanced as preconditions for talks, and thus hugely complicating what should have been the routine resumption of direct negotiations for well over a year.
Critics may argue over how astutely Netanyahu has handled the issue whether he should have defied Washington 10 months ago and withstood the demands for the moratorium, or defied his own more hawkish, pro-settlement supporters this week and extended it.
But the sad fact is that the freeze is a red herring, a tactical issue. It is not the heart of the matter as Ehud Olmert's negotiating experiences unfortunately made all too clear.
On the major strategic disputes on the demarcation of a border (that would overtake all the vexed debate on settlement building) and most notably on the issues of refugees and the future of Jerusalem Abbas chose not to respond to terms from Olmert that were far more generous than those Netanyahu will ever offer, belying that image of a Palestinian leader with his heart set on peace. Doubtless to the relief of many hawks who would fervently oppose the concessions Olmert offered, and to the dismay of many doves who would have anticipated that those terms would meet the Palestinians' needs, Abbas allowed the Olmert principles to pass into irrelevance.
Some apologists for Abbas claim the offer was never properly made to him, or that he could not dare accept it from a prime minister who was going to be out of office before too long. But while Abbas is on record with those negative comments about the gaps being too wide, to this day he has yet to come out with a counter declaration with a statement to the effect that, if only Netanyahu were now to proffer similar terms, he would rush to accept them. Such a statement would fuel a truly momentous debate in Israel, but Abbas shows no inclination to make it.
In urging Netanyahu to put the very same terms to the Palestinians again, Olmert evidently believes Abbas's response would be different this time.
But it's hard to find indications to support that notion. And it's impossible to believe that it will ever be put to the test.