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What Future for Israel?

US State Department
Secretary of State John Kerry with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Amman, Jordan, June 29, 2013

At his Jerusalem residence on September 16, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert showed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a map representing the most far-reaching territorial compromise ever proposed by an Israeli premier. According to Olmert, his plan granted the Palestinians a state with a land area equal to 99.5 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel would annex 6.3 percent of Palestinian territory, compensating the Palestinians with Israeli lands equivalent to 5.8 percent, as well as a corridor that would connect the two regions but remain under Israeli sovereignty. Jerusalem would be a shared capital, its eastern, Arab neighborhoods part of Palestine, its Jewish neighborhoods in both halves of the city part of Israel, and a roughly two-square-kilometer area encompassing Jerusalem’s Old City would be under international administration.

Olmert has said to numerous interviewers that he told Abbas it was the best offer any Israeli leader would give in the next fifty years. Abbas asked to take the map to show to his experts. Olmert refused, fearing that Abbas would pocket it and insist that it serve as a new starting point for future talks. The two agreed that their negotiators would meet the following day. In the years that followed, Olmert frequently asserted that he never heard from Abbas again. “I’ve been waiting,” he recently said, “ever since.”

This story, which is widely accepted in Israel and has done much to discredit the idea of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement, contains a number of inaccuracies. First, Olmert and Abbas did negotiate again on more than one occasion, as noted in Tested by Zion, former US deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams’s detailed, frank, and perceptive account of the George W. Bush administration’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, Abrams writes that rather than ignoring the proposal, the Palestinians asked for clarifications about it and then claimed it was they who never heard back. Third, Olmert’s descriptions of the offer, which he has not shown to the public or to anyone who could attest to its accuracy, have been inconsistent, adding credibility to Palestinian claims that it was less far-reaching and more vague than he has suggested.1

Olmert never provided absolute numbers when describing the amount of territory he proposed to annex. Palestinian negotiators weren’t able to ascertain whether his percentages were of a part of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, or of a much larger territory including Gaza, among other areas.2 On top of this, Palestinian and Israeli calculations of the West Bank’s area differ by several hundred square kilometers. In some Palestinian accounts, Abbas couldn’t be sure whether Olmert’s proposed 6.3 percent to 6.8 percent annexation was not in fact closer to 8.5 percent—i.e., more than four times the 1.9 percent of the West Bank and Gaza that Abbas insisted a swap not exceed.3

Adding to Palestinian doubts was that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had presented her own maps, annexing 8 to 10 percent of the West Bank, yet Abrams notes that “they looked very much the same [as Olmert’s]…. So how could the maps be so similar?” The parties never agreed which settlements would be removed, with Palestinians balking at Olmert’s insistence on retaining Ariel, whose eastern border extends nearly halfway across the West Bank.

Still larger than these territorial discrepancies were ones concerning the division of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and security arrangements. Olmert proposed to allow five thousand refugees to return to Israel over five years and Abbas 150,000 over ten years, with the possibility of renewal. Israel refused to acknowledge responsibility for the refugee problem, as Abbas insisted it do.4 Olmert’s diplomatic adviser told Abrams that Israel demanded its armed forces remain in the future Palestinian state, a condition Palestinians rejected. As the lead Palestinian negotiator, Ahmed Qurie, told Abrams and other US officials, “Territory is the easiest issue.”

Abrams didn’t think Abbas should take the deal. Olmert was mired in corruption scandals. He had been polling in the single digits for months and had promised to resign as soon as his party, Kadima, selected a successor. He presented his map the day before Livni was named as his replacement. Several days later, Olmert formally resigned. “The weaker he became politically,” Abrams writes, “the more Olmert seemed willing to risk.”

Abbas had good reason to be cautious. The legal standing of a peace treaty made with a lame-duck Israeli prime minister was less than clear. Abbas would be making painful concessions in a deal that could not be carried out until he somehow regained control of Gaza, which he had lost to Hamas in June 2007. There was no prospect of Hamas accepting such an agreement. There were, Abrams writes, “too many lacunae in this deal.” At a meeting with President Bush in New York days after Olmert put forward his map, Abbas, according to Abrams, said that “many people in the Israeli government were encouraging him to break off with Olmert,” an assertion later confirmed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.5 Abrams heard Bush tell Abbas that he “worried that any deal Olmert negotiated would be dead simply because he was its sponsor.”6

Few of these details are known to the Israeli electorate, and even if better known would likely do little to alter the conclusion most Israelis have drawn: there is no Palestinian partner for peace. In the words of a leading promoter of this view, Ari Shavit, a columnist with the liberal daily Haaretz who identifies himself as a member of the Zionist left: “To this day Abbas has not responded positively to the offer of 100 percent made to him by…Olmert.” In a column about the futility of further negotiations, Shavit wrote: “Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni offered the whole world to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians were not satisfied.”

Whatever the Israeli public’s misperceptions about the nature of Olmert’s proposal and Abbas’s calculations, it is right about three key points. First, over the past two decades, Palestinian positions have barely budged. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has remained fixed in its demand for territory equivalent to all of the West Bank and Gaza; in its view, it has already made the major concession by recognizing Israel in 1993 and agreeing in 1988 to a state on 22 percent of mandatory Palestine—less than half the amount granted to Palestinians in the UN partition resolution of November 1947.7

Second, Olmert offered far more land than any Israeli leader, continuing a trend of increased Israeli territorial concessions in each successive round of official negotiations. In May 2000, Israel offered the Palestinians 66 percent of the West Bank, with 17 percent annexed to Israel, 17 percent not annexed but under Israeli control, and no swap of Israeli land; the numbers steadily rose until Olmert’s 2008 offer of 99.5 percent, including swaps.8 Third, Abbas did not accept the deal. As he explained in 2009, “The gaps were wide.”9 Four years later, they have only widened.

On a recent Friday, Israel’s highest-rated television station, Channel 2, showed a news segment asking if the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not already dead. The answer, as presented in the anchor’s concluding remarks and by most interviewees—left, right, religious, secular—was that two states had become unattainable.

In the summer of 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed hopes of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—within “two years or it’s over”—he encounters an Israeli public that has never been more skeptical about the prospect of a negotiated settlement. This is not solely because of the long-established reasons often cited for Israeli doubts: former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s failure to accept what most Israelis viewed as generous offers from Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000–2001; the suicide bombings during the second intifada; increased rocket fire from Gaza following Israel’s 2005 withdrawal; Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory.

None of these can explain how in March 2006—weeks after Palestinians nominated a Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, as prime minister and months after Israel’s retreat from Gaza was met with continued projectile fire—Israelis gave an overwhelming plurality of their votes to the Kadima party, which advocated further negotiations and a unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank if those talks were to fail. Nor can they account for the fact that in February 2009 Israelis gave another, smaller plurality of their votes to Kadima, which was still campaigning on a platform of advancing Israeli-Palestinian talks, in spite of the collapse of the Annapolis negotiations of 2007–2008 and the bloody, Kadima-led 2008–2009 war in Gaza. In both elections heightened tensions with the Palestinians made the conflict a priority of the campaign, but today it seems both increasingly manageable and far from Israel’s top concern.

The January 2013 election, which brought a new coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, also came just after renewed conflict with Gaza, a November 2012 escalation—called Operation Pillar of Cloud—that resulted in six Israeli deaths. But for the first time in decades Palestinians were not a central issue of the campaign. Kadima was crushed, dropping from a plurality to barely crossing the threshold necessary to enter the Israeli Knesset. The party voted out Livni, who has positioned herself as Israel’s leading advocate of renewed negotiations. Hatnua, a new party she formed after losing Kadima’s internal election, received roughly one fifth of Kadima’s 2009 Knesset seats. She is now minister of justice.

In the January election, most of Kadima’s constituency went elsewhere, especially to Yesh Atid, the new party founded by Yair Lapid, a former columnist and television personality whose expressed views do not significantly differ from Netanyahu’s. Lapid delivered his first foreign policy campaign speech at the West Bank settlement of Ariel. He said he opposed a freeze in settlement construction and pronounced his support for the mutually inconsistent positions of advocating a negotiated two-state agreement while opposing the division of Jerusalem, the latter a sine qua non of any deal a Palestinian leader could sign.

The rapidly growing and also impoverished ultra-Orthodox population continued to pay little mind to Palestinians or to foreign policy more generally, concentrating instead on religious study and maintaining welfare privileges, draft exemptions, and the right not to teach their students English, science, or math.

The 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel—the country’s other large, expanding sector that has low employment rates and high levels of poverty—managed not to lose Knesset seats, despite a continued trend of slowly declining voter participation.10 This may be reversed, though, after Israel’s current first-graders—more than half of whom are Arab or ultra-Orthodox, two groups with large numbers of anti-Zionists11—reach voting age in twelve years.

The historic leader of the Israeli left, the Labor party, performed more poorly than expected but nevertheless recovered from its 2009 low, despite—or due to—having ignored the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and partially shed its dovish image. Its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, focused Labor’s campaign narrowly on socioeconomic issues, courted settlers, declared herself opposed to a stop in settlement construction in order to resume negotiations, and said it was an “injustice” to call Labor a leftist party—a statement with which the founders of the West Bank’s first, Labor-supported settlements might agree.

  1. 1

    In conversation with Abrams, Olmert’s foreign policy adviser, Shalom Tourgeman, said: “There was no agreement on the land swap and where it will be, no agreement of the worth of the Gaza–West Bank passage and in principle on the size of land Israel will keep. We said the major [settlement] blocks are at least 6.3 percent, if not more, and they said not more than 1.9 percent. On foreign forces [replacing Israeli ones in the West Bank] I don’t recall that it was ever an option; in all our talks we said it cannot be an option, not NATO and not other forces.” Olmert’s chief of staff, Yoram Turbowitz, likewise told Abrams that the two parties “never agreed to anything.” 

  2. 2

    Other areas Olmert might have included when making his calculation were East Jerusalem, the northern Dead Sea quadrant, and the no man’s land adjacent to the 1949 armistice lines. 

  3. 3

    The figure of 6.8 percent (in exchange for 5.5 percent) was what Abbas wrote in the upper left corner of his hand-drawn rendition of Olmert’s September 16, 2008 map. These are the same figures a leaked PLO document states Olmert offered weeks earlier, on August 31. Abrams describes a November 24, 2008 White House meeting in which Olmert said it was an annexation of 6.5, not 6.3, percent that he proposed to Abbas; this number was repeated by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who himself has given inconsistent descriptions of Olmert’s proposal. 

  4. 4

    Palestinian negotiators insisted that Israel acknowledge responsibility for the refugee problem and viewed as insufficient Olmert’s offer to “acknowledge the suffering” of Palestinian refugees. 

  5. 5

    Rice recalls in her memoir, No Higher Honor (Crown, 2011), that “Livni urged me (and, I believe, Abbas) not to enshrine the Olmert proposal.” 

  6. 6

    Abrams had similar concerns: “Consider the situation had Israel rejected the deal: It would have been said throughout the world that Israel rejected peace, that…Israelis preferred territory and conflict. The political and public relations disaster would have been very great.” 

  7. 7

    Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian negotiator, Palestinian Authority minister, and adviser to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, explained the difference in Israeli and Palestinian perceptions of the pre-1967 borders: “Israelis should understand that Palestinians have a concept of compromise that is different from theirs. The Israelis are coming to the table with the idea that they are going to compromise on the occupied territories, i.e., the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians, on the other hand, come to negotiations with the understanding that the original dispute with Israel is over historic Palestine, and the 1967 borders are themselves a compromise that cannot be further compromised.” 

  8. 8

    Between May 2000 and September 2008, Israeli negotiators made the following proposals: May 2000 in Eilat (66 percent, no swaps); May 2000 in Stockholm (76.6 percent, no swaps); the beginning of Camp David, in July 2000 (88.5 percent, no swaps); the end of Camp David, in July 2000 (91 percent, with a swap of Israeli land equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank); Taba, in January 2001 (92 percent, no swaps); Livni-Qurei negotiations during the Annapolis process, in 2008 (92.7 percent, no swaps). The two offers in May 2000 proposed that additional territory (17 percent in the first offer in Eilat, 10.1 percent in Stockholm) remain under Israeli control for security reasons but ultimately become Palestinian territory. For a useful history of the territorial dimension of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, see Michael Herzog, “Minding the Gaps: Territorial Issues in Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking,” Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, December 2011. 

  9. 9

    Abbas’s 2009 statement came under withering criticism. Three years later, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2, he denied having made it. But it is hard to understand how the gaps between Palestinian positions and Olmert’s offer—virtually empty on security arrangements, vague on Jerusalem, and refusing to acknowledge responsibility for the refugee problem, as Palestinians insisted—could be characterized as anything but wide. 

  10. 10

    Reasons cited for the decline include divisions among Arab parties, a spate of Knesset bills aimed at shoring up national Jewish identity, campaigns by Israeli security services against Palestinian political activists, and the historic exclusion of Arab parties from every Israeli governing coalition. In 2007, Prime Minister Olmert’s office sent a remarkable letter to the editor of Fasl al-Maqal, the official organ of Balad, one of the largest Arab political parties. It stated: “The Shin Bet security service [the Israeli intelligence agency that focuses on Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza] will thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law.” 

  11. 11

    Non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that a Jewish state should not be created before the arrival of the messiah. 

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