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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.