Sunday, May 26, 2013

Olmert and Abbas: Round Two, Or Is It Three?

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.

We offered them compromise and they came back with violence. They never miss a chance to miss an opportunity. The latest installment in this melodrama, according to Jonathan Tobin of Commentary, was Ehud Olmert's offer to Mahmoud Abbas in September of 2008, which Abbas presumably rejected. Olmert's "lesson" should not be lost on John Kerry and "American and Jewish apologists" who think the peace process is worth our time, or that, oh, I don't know, things like settlements are obstacles to peace.

And the occasion for Tobin's reinforcement of Olmert's lesson is the latter's new interview with Avi Issacharoff in The Tower, provocatively entitled "Exclusive: Olmert: 'I Am Still Waiting For Abbas To Call.'" "For the first time," Issacharoff reports, "Olmert himself is revealing the full details of the proposal," a peace plan "the Palestinians rebuffed." For Tobin, this interview is definitive. "Abbas could not take yes for an answer." Kerry is on "a fool's errand."

The language here is so impacted with narcissism, I suppose I may be forgiven for noticing, first, that word "exclusive." For there is nothing--zero, nada, zip!--in the Olmert interview with Issacharoff that Olmert did not detail for me and The New York Times Magazine over two years ago, or simultaneously reveal in his Hebrew memoir, or broadly imply to others before me, including to Aluf Benn, Issacharoff's editor at Haaretz (which had induced me to ask Olmert for a detailed plan in the first place). Issacharoff should have said, "For the second, perhaps third, time, Olmert himself is revealing, etc.," but Israeli journalists often behave as if they have nothing to learn from what foreign publications print about their country.

In any case, there is clearly more at stake here than who scooped whom. Had Issacharoff read (or admitted to reading) the Times piece, he would have had to provide Tobin and Commentary a much less convenient lesson. It is false to state that Abbas rebuffed Olmert's plan. It is false to say that the Palestinians were unwilling to pursue further negotiations in the wake of Olmert's offer.  (Indeed, neither conclusion can be inferred even from what Issacharoff quotes Olmert' saying, but never mind.)

On the contrary, both Abbas and Olmert emphasized to me that neither side rejected the plan; both understood that they had the basis for a continuing negotiation. Abbas made clear, as did Saeb Erekat, that the Palestinian side accepted (with General James Jone's assistance) security arrangements acceptable to Olmert. The Palestinians also accepted the principle that the Holy Basin would be under a kind of transnational custodianship. The sides agreed to refer to the Arab Peace Initiative (which itself refers to UN Resolution 194) to launch negotiations about the number of Palestinians who'd come back to Israel under the "right of return."

They did not agree yet on a number; and, swap or no swap, Abbas did not accept the border as Olmert had mapped it out, with Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, and Efrat--that is 5.9% of the West Bank--incorporated into Israel. The Palestinians wanted a plan in which 1.9% would be Israeli, which would allow 62% of settlers to remain in place. But closing such gaps is what just American mediation would be for. In fact, negotiations to close them did ensue, though informally, at the Baker Institute at Rice University, where former Israeli officials and one of Palestine's negotiators, Samih Al-Abid (whom I also interviewed), floated ideas in the 4% range.

Why did Abbas not come back immediately with a counter-proposal? Well, from Abbas's point of view, Olmert's was the counter-proposal. Erekat had proposed 1.9%. Abbas hoped Obama would be elected and some new mediator might be more sympathetic to the Palestinians when it was time to close the deal. Yes, there is continuing disagreement between Olmert and Abbas about why that negotiation did not ensue, formally, and immediately, after Olmert's offer on September 16; or why the sides did not meet in Washington during the first week in January, 2009. Erekat insisted to me that he was willing to go to Washington to meet with Shalom Turgeman, in spite of the Gaza operation, and that Condoleezza Rice could confirm this; Olmert says the invitation was muddled and, besides, this was all too late.

Suffice it to say that Abbas first wanted to see if Obama would indeed be elected. But then the border with Gaza started heating up, and Olmert, though already a lame-duck, thought he could actually advance peace (and help Abbas, in a way) by undermining Hamas's strategic capabilities along the Philadelphia Corridor. Then, the sheer bloodiness of the war eclipsed everything; and by the time the two leaders might have come together, revulsion for Israel's leaders on the West Bank, and Livni's emergence as Olmert successor, etc., made Olmert's and Abbas's plans moot.

The one story Issacharoff does reveal for the first time to English audiences--which is lovely, and I could not use for reasons of space--is how Olmert first got Abbas to come to the Prime Minister's residence late in 2006, that is, by telling him that his wife had prepared all of his favorite dishes and that Abbas would insult her by not showing up. However, the real poignancy of this story has a background Issacharoff does not reveal, namely, that Olmert (so he told me) had been in several meetings with Abbas and Olmert's predecessor, Ariel Sharon, in which Sharon treated Abbas so bullyingly that Olmert himself cringed but, alas, had to remain silent; that Olmert knew he would have to make a gesture to Abbas to prove he was not approaching things as his former boss did.

Which brings me to the main point. There was, and is, no disagreement between Olmert and Abbas that American diplomacy might have picked up from where they had left off. They also agreed that it was Netanyahu who said "No way" as soon as he came into office in the spring of 2009. Tobin might consider why Netanyahu has repudiated what Abbas and Olmert achieved, not why Abbas did not just take a deal, on Israel's political schedule, that he reasonably sought to improve.

In fairness to Issacharoff, many of whose Haaretz pieces I admire, he needs no instruction from me about Netanyahu's rejectionism or Olmert's frustration with it. But he curiously chose to leave all of this out in reporting the interview. For his part, Olmert told Issacharoff--with a touch of bravado meant to evoke what Dayan had said of King Hussein--that he is still "waiting for a call from Abbas," though the two have spoken warmly about private matters since the fall of 2008, and Olmert continues to view Abbas with respect and as a potential partner.

What Olmert really means, as he prepares to get back into the political fray, is that he is hoping, understandably, for Abbas to publicly join him in endorsing the principles they had negotiated, something that might strengthen Olmert's moral prestige internationally, and with the Israeli public. Given memories of the carnage in Gaza, and Olmert's subsequent political losses, Abbas--also understandably--is reluctant to make any public declarations outside of Kerry's channels.

Still, Olmert has told me (and everyone who'll listen) that he cannot understand why the Obama administration still does not publicly embrace the Olmert-Abbas agenda and rally the EU to it the way he had wanted to. He told Issacharoff that Abbas is "no big hero," which in context is a kind of Olmertian compliment. The times call for diplomacy and consensus building, not heroism. The threat to Israel from international isolation requires nothing more than common sense.

A final caveat.  I don't meant to imply that the "core issues" Olmert and Abbas dealt with are the final ones. I have argued here and elsewhere that the confederal approach the two leaders tipped-toed up to in Jerusalem, over security, the international commission on refugees, etc., will have to be deepened and expanded if a two-state solution will ever be made plausible. Business leaders must get involved to push interdependence, as some have done this week at the World Economic Forum. Good faith can produce creative plans for reciprocity and greater integration. Olmert is surely right about the need, at times, for "creative ambiguity" in reconciling practical interests.

Then again, to expect good faith from Commentary is probably not wise. Tobin's sly effort to turn Issacharoff's over-hyped interview into a replay of what Benny Morris did with Camp David 2, namely, place the blame for the failure of serious peace initiatives on the leaders of the Palestine Authority, does no justice to history, or Olmert's own intentions, for that matter.

Olmert should indeed be taken seriously. With Yair Lapid losing altitude, Olmert may well emerge as the centrist voice to organize Global Israel and the peace camp; readers will not be surprised to know that I wish him well. I dare say Olmert has learned many lessons over the years and has many yet to teach. Condescending to Palestinians is not one of them.


Potter said...

This is a much appreciated addition, at least for me ( and it should be for everyone who cares enough) to what you have already written albeit that it is instigated by what Tobin wrote on Commentary.

"Tobin might consider why Netanyahu has repudiated what Abbas and Olmert achieved, not why Abbas did not just take a deal, on Israel's political schedule, that he reasonably sought to improve"

Indeed. And as I read that I did think of what was done to Arafat with re Camp David 2 by various writers looking for excuses and playing the blame game. Sure enough, reading further you mention this. Arafat knew he would be blamed for any failures.

I come down on blaming the incredible reluctance of Israel's leaders and a fear-filled vulnerable public that depends on military force to protect the state forever.. the hubris, the shortsightedness, the cataracts forming over eyes-- how else can this be put? And of course I can blame our aspiring to be bold and audacious president Obama, who is not.

But in the end it is up to the Israeli public isn’t it? And maybe it will take some shaking up and peeling away of the illusions and the fogginess-- because non-violence and possibilities for agreement lying there untended don't seem to be incentives to move.

Thanks. (on this Memorial Day 2013 remembering what war brings)

Y. Ben-David said...

(1) Netanyahu and the rest of Israel are under no obligation whatsoever to be beholden to whatever concession Olmert made to Abbas. I fail to understand why you would think he is.

(2) You are probably the only person who thinks Olmert has any chance to return to the political arena. The large majority of Israelis, both Left and Right, view him as a rather slimy, repulsive figure. I know that YOU know him personally, and he worked on you at the famous New Year's Party at the Van Leer Institue, IIRC no doubt flattering you, but the rest of us haven't had the "pleasure" of dealing with him personally and so we can judge him more objectively....a politician is what he DOES, not what he SAYS and people don't like all the financial shenanigans he has been involved in and most remember his bungled wars and other disasters like the Gilad Shalit abduction which cost Israel very heavily thanks to Olmert's stupidity. No one wants him back other than you and maybe his wife.

(3) Of Abbas didn't say "no". That would end the American gravy train of money that he is getting. He is just stringing everyone along by not saying "yes". I also think most people understand this game, even if you don't.

Potter said...

1.A leader, especially an Israeli leader given the history and original ideals of the country, IS under a MORAL obligation to pursue honestly any opening to ending this long conflict that has caused much suffering and death,.. and promises no doubt to continue to do so in the future.

2. Your slimy remark notwithstanding, slimy repulsive figures have ascended to the top in Israel ( and elsewhere). Rabin, not a slimy or repulsive figure opened his eyes wider. He saw the need for justice and the benefits of a deal, So too it seems did other leaders, who have been very vocal about warring, reach out for peace (M. Begin). It should be said that Sharon's refusal to continue where Ehud Barak left off was pretty stupid too, as was ignoring the Arab Peace Initiative, both too points of departure. The FACT is that leaders have been AFRAID of a other words COWARDS!.

The Israeli public, those who have children should also be interested building a future country that is less of a fortress, losing loved ones to war and increasing emigration.

3.This makes no point. Abbas has a moderate point of view that the West does not argue with by and large. He has advocated non-violence. He has avoided a deal with Hamas too so far. He has a lot more to gain from "yes". If Israel cannot arrive at a deal with a man like him, then Israel simply prefers the so-called "status quo" which will end up as one state.

I think Dr. Avishai is pointing to that eventuality, one way or another, down the road.

Y. Ben-David said...

Abbas has NOTHING to gain from saying "Yes" except eating a bullet. Remember what happened to Sadat? Recall one of the accusations against Mubabark that lead to his overthrow was his adherence to the peace agreement with Israel? Abbas has NO credibility in the Palestinian society, his government is illegal and unconstitutional, and HAMAS has as much say in Palestinian policy as Abbas does. With radical Islamism sweeping the Arab world, what backing would Abbas have in making suicidal concessions like giving up the right of return of the Palestinian refugees?
By stringing everyone along for years by neighter neither no or yes, he keeps EVERYONE happy, keeps the American and EU money flowing in, he can tell HAMAS and other extremists that he didn't make any concessions, he can travel around the world and get red-carpet treatment as a "potential peace-maker" without every having to do anything.
You are projecting YOUR views as a 'reasonable person' and 'lover of peace' on everyone else. Not everyone in the world thinks like you, believe it or it. "Progressives" are NOT the "concience of mankind" even though they have appointed themselves as such. Just look at SYria, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, etc, etc.

Potter said...

Sadat and Mubarak are not good examples to use since neither one had a population under occupation that was aiming for a state of their own. But this is typical of backward looking in general- grab whatever you can from the past to make your point. But since it has no substance, it does not stick. Mubarak's overthrow had very little if anything to do with his adherence to peace with Israel especially since his successors are not throwing out the deal yet either.

For years, you should thank him, for at least helping to if not completely keeping things quiet in Israel. You and your fundamentalists hate him for showing in bold relief who is causing the real blockages.

I think you mistake my views as too positive ( no other way to put it) as you do BA's above because you don't believe there is any chance for an agreement, you don't want one yourself. And you probably won't want one until your ship goes down. In the meantime, people who have more positive views really do get your goat don't they?

BTW- your examples of countries in flux are just that: countries in flux. Why do you suppose you have been consigned ( or you consigned yourself) to that part of the world? to bury yourself in some shelter?behind some wall? get enormous amounts of help from us? ( speaking of GRAVY TRAINS)

Potter said...

you should thank Abbas that is... though maybe too, Mubarak and Sadat.

Y. Ben-David said...

Potter says:
But this is typical of backward looking in general- grab whatever you can from the past to make your point
Ah, yes, the "progressives" favorite comment that has come out of the mouths of Henry Ford and Shimon Peres: "History is more or less bunk". I happen to agree with George Santayana who said "those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Shimon Peres caused the deaths of over a thousand Israelis when he brought arch-terrorist Arafat and his FATAH gangs to Israel and said "he is a different person" which was a lie and he knew it (but you don't get Nobel Prizes for keeping Israel strong, only by trying to dismantle it.
The burder of proof that Abbas and his FATAH gangs are 'peace partners' is on YOU and Dr Avishai. Your saying that "it must be they want peace because they, like I, view making as much money as possible is the main goal of life" doesn't move me as much as their self-proclaimed goal of eradicating the shame the Arab/Muslim world suffered by having the dhimmi Jews create a Jewish state which goes against EVERYTHING Islam, a religion they take seriously (unlike what you seem to think) stands for.

Potter said...

What I get from you is precisely NOT learning from history but repeating it ad nauseum.

The only way you know you have a peace partner is to risk for it with a partner that ls honestly is risking too. It's not for arguing here; it's in the risk taking. Israel is strong, but how it behaves is weak and fearful. yes the military will take care of everything... until it doesn't and it hasn't.

Your last sentence about :dhimmi Jews says more than I can say about how you have your head firmly stuck in the past and how you consider only the most extreme views on their side to counter your own extreme views. You NEED those Islamist extremists. You deserve each other, all you extremists. Let the rest of humanity live in peace and prosperity. Call it "progressive" and make that a dirty word if you can.

Have a nice day.