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.


US State Department

Secretary of State Kerry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, May 23, 2013

For Palestinians the most significant aspect of the election was the heavy blow dealt to the ruling Likud party, which managed to win enough seats to stay in power only because of the foresight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Seeing ominous preelection polls, he formed a joint list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, a conservative, nationalist party supported by large numbers of Russian immigrants.12 Netanyahu thereby ensured at least another term in office, at the cost of bringing Lieberman further out of his ethnic political niche and potentially—should the alliance be formalized as a merger—into the prime minister’s chair. A formal merger will help Netanyahu dilute the growing power of the far-right, pro-annexationist members of his own party, who roundly defeated centrists in the primary.

In June 2009, prompted by President Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world, Netanyahu declared his conditional support for a Palestinian state. Israel Harel, a founder of the settler movement, called it “a revolutionary ideological turn equivalent to the shattering of the party’s Ten Commandments.” Others were and still are skeptical that Netanyahu meant it—not only his liberal critics but also many of his supporters within Likud. The Likud charter still maintains its rejection of a Palestinian state, and in January 2013 the joint Likud-Beytenu list did not publish a party platform.

Yet Netanyahu’s declared support for Palestinian statehood seems to have grown only firmer. Last May, Netanyahu for the first time used a demographic argument for a Palestinian state—Jews now make up less than half the population of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza—saying that the purpose of an agreement was to prevent the eventuality of a binational state. This brought a sharp rebuke from Netanyahu’s one-time mentor in the Likud, former defense minister Moshe Arens, who favors annexing all of the West Bank and giving full citizenship to its residents:

The State of Israel is already a bi-national state—a state in which two nationalities reside, Jews [75 percent] and Arabs [21 percent]. The advocates of the establishment of a Palestinian state in [the West Bank] simply oppose the addition of any more Arabs to…the State of Israel. Lurking behind their pious slogan “two states for two peoples” is their real, politically incorrect slogan: “Not one more Arab!”

An identity crisis has emerged in Likud, as Netanyahu has drifted toward the center while the rest of the party has veered further right. Many of its most prominent members advocate annexing some or all of the West Bank; they range from elders like Arens and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin to such rising Likud stars as deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin, deputy defense minister Danny Danon, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, and coalition chairman Yariv Levin. By standing awkwardly between support for one state and support for two, Likud bled from both sides, losing centrist votes to Lapid’s party and right-wing votes to the pro-settlement annexationists in Jewish Home, a successor to the old National Religious Party. Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home’s forty-one-year-old leader, is a former software entrepreneur, director general of the umbrella group of West Bank settlements (Yesha), and Netanyahu chief of staff who together with Lapid was the great success story of the 2013 elections.

Bennett focused his campaign on Jewish identity and the need to overcome the differences between secular and religious Jews. In so doing he moderated his party’s image, widened its electoral base, and dramatically increased its share of Knesset seats, winning twelve. During negotiations over forming a coalition government, Bennett allied with Lapid, thereby forcing Netanyahu to set aside his distaste for Bennett and bring Jewish Home into the new government, fewer than half of whose members are on record supporting a Palestinian state.

Thanks to the presence of Jewish Home, more than one in six of the coalition’s members reside beyond the 1967 borders, commonly known as the Green Line. Roughly one third of Knesset members are religious, a record. Another, overlapping third are members of the Land of Israel caucus, dedicated to strengthening the settlements. And many government ministers advocate some form of annexation of the West Bank. The annexationist Danny Danon, elected chairman of the Likud Central Committee in June, recently said that the majority of the government would block a peace agreement calling for two states.13

Israel’s new government represents well the rightward shift in mainstream Israeli thought. Like Netanyahu and Lapid, most Israeli Jews say they would accept a two-state solution, but the terms on which they are willing to do so are hardly realistic.14 Many of those further to their right, by contrast, are rather more clear-eyed—or perhaps simply honest—about what peace would entail. In a veiled attack against Netanyahu and Lapid, Naftali Bennett recently said, “Some say they are against the division of Jerusalem but they are in favor of a Palestinian state. And I ask, where exactly would the Palestinian capital be? In Jericho? In Bethlehem? In Berlin?”

The right has strengthened as the arguments of the left and center have been discredited. Promoters of negotiations have failed to convey how high a price a peace agreement would exact. They have told themselves and the public that the outlines of a peace deal are well known and they have asserted that agreement exists where it does not. Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, a veteran of the Carter and Clinton administrations and co-chairman of the board of the Jewish People Policy Institute, writes in The Future of the Jews that it is “commonly understood that the largest settlement blocks would remain under Israeli control in any final peace agreement.” Israelis similarly speak of “consensus” settlements, but the common understanding of which Eizenstat writes is shared only by Israelis and their supporters. Leaked Palestinian transcripts from the Annapolis talks of 2007–2008 record the two sides fighting fiercely over the future status of what Israelis consider one of the most “consensus” settlements of all, Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, with some 40,000 residents.

Claims of a peace within grasp have been as overstated as warnings that the perpetually closing window for a two-state-solution has nearly shut or that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will make it an international pariah. In the countries in which the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (“BDS”) has made the largest gains—South Africa and the United Kingdom—Israeli exports have in fact sharply risen. Israelis are not overly worried that the European Union will go significantly beyond wringing its hands over the way its financial support of the Palestinian Authority effectively underwrites Israel’s occupation.15

Even if proposals to boycott Israeli companies based in the West Bank were to gain steam, they would not stop Israel’s banks, cable television companies, or supermarkets from operating beyond the 1967 borders; nor would they reduce the number of settlers, most of whom work not at factories adjacent to Ariel but west of the Green Line—at places like Google, Intel, and the prime minister’s office. And while elite attitudes toward Israel in the US are changing, recent polls have cast doubt on widely publicized claims that young, non-Orthodox Jews in the US are growing more distant from Israel.16

Years of relative quiet in the West Bank—2012 was the first year since 1973 that not a single Israeli was killed in an attack there—have undermined the charge that the now-forty-six-year-old military occupation is unsustainable. Secretary Kerry has warned that Israel “will be left to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state.” But limited Palestinian self-governance, including close security cooperation with Israel, continues to protect Israel from having to make any such choice.

An inescapable and likely unintended conclusion one draws from Abrams’s behind-the-scenes account of policymaking during the second intifada between 2000 and 2005 is how effective violence was in eliminating Israeli complacency and advancing Palestinian goals. Less than a year into the uprising, pressures from Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah—in the form of tearful pleas for America to restrain Israel and a secret letter that, Abrams writes, “put US-Saudi relations in the balance”—led the US to endorse Palestinian statehood. Ariel Sharon soon followed with his own statement of support for a Palestinian state, becoming Israel’s first prime minister to do so.17

As the Palestinian ambushes, sniper fire, and suicide bombings continued, Sharon abandoned his decades-long dream of retaining Gaza and all of the West Bank. “The bloodshed was so great,” Abrams writes, “that Sharon lifted his year-old” policy of demanding seven days of quiet before he would negotiate a cease-fire with the Palestinians. Later he used the word “occupation” before a Likud Knesset faction meeting, saying it “cannot go on forever.” As pressure mounted to end the violence, Sharon announced that Israel would withdraw from Gaza.18

The subsequent rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza did not end the desire for more talks. They did, however, greatly strengthen the right’s argument that the conflict is neither primarily territorial nor based on grievances stemming from Israel’s 1967 conquest. Both Palestinian and Israeli hard-liners have gained supporters by casting doubt on the notion that the conflict could be resolved in an exchange of land for peace. This central axiom of the two-decades-old peace process made sense for Israel’s negotiations with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, but never with the Palestinians, who believe that the core of the conflict is Zionist settlement in Palestine and the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 war that established the Israeli state.

The belief of American and Israeli negotiators that solving the problems of 1967 will close the door on those of 1948 comes under powerful rebuke in two original books from distant points on the Israeli political spectrum: the historian Asher Susser’s Israel, Jordan, and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative and the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav’s Beyond the Two-State Solution.19 Susser documents how the gaps between the two sides, or at least some leading spokesmen from the two sides, have narrowed on issues deriving from the 1967 war—borders, settlements, and security arrangements—while “little if any real progress was made in resolving the 1948 question of refugee return.” That issue prominently resurfaced in January, when Abbas said that Israel had refused to allow Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict to enter the West Bank and Gaza unless they renounced their right of return to Israel. With the political dominance of the Israeli right, which places greater emphasis on Israel’s own 1948 issue—Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—the gaps between the two sides are indeed only widening.

The intangible elements of the conflict have grown in importance while the Green Line defined by the 1949 armistice has been all but erased. Jewish nationalist attacks against Palestinian communities in the West Bank have crossed into Israel, taking the form of arson, vandalism, and violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Jewish activists in the West Bank have expanded their demographic battle to cities in Israel proper, west of the Green Line, buying homes in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Ramla, Akko, and Lod. Dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis signed a ruling forbidding the rental of homes to non-Jews.20 Many Israelis no longer know where the Green Line lies, mistakenly identifying it with the current West Bank separation barrier and quite unaware that they have crossed it on major roads and highways.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas; drawing by John Springs

Israel’s turn away from the Palestinians has brought an overdue shift in focus from the borders of the state to what lies within them. Jewish identity was a central issue of the 2013 election; indirectly, so too was the place of minorities in the Jewish state. Among Israeli citizens, Jews but not Palestinians have collective rights to land, immigration, symbols such as their own flag, and commemorations, particularly of the Nakba, the catastrophe of Palestinian defeat and expulsion in 1948. Jews and non-Jews cannot legally marry. Current residents of Jerusalem homes that were abandoned during the 1948 war have been evicted to make room for former owners and their descendants—but only when the deed holders are Jews.

The inequality of Jews and non-Jews within Israel’s pre-1967 borders—in which Palestinian citizens and residents lived under military rule from 1948 until the end of 1966—prepared the ground for still more unequal arrangements in the West Bank after the 1967 war.21 Both were created by the Ashkenazi Labor Zionist elite that now criticizes the settlers for dynamics it set in place. On what grounds, Shenhav asks, is the idea of Jewish settlement in ruined Palestinian villages within the pre-1967 borders—formerly inhabited, in many cases, by Palestinian citizens internally displaced by war—considered more moral than Jewish settlement on Palestinian agricultural lands of the West Bank? The former, he argues, involved far more human suffering. Susser, indeed any Zionist, would surely object to comparisons that would cast doubt on Israeli claims to its pre-1967 territory. But he offers strong support for the underlying premise that the root of the conflict is not east of the Green Line but in the more than century-old project of Zionist settlement itself.

The fading importance of the pre-1967 borders means a breaking with illusions and a return to the true nature of the conflict: a struggle between two ethnic groups between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.22 The peaceful arrangements they have so far discussed have all fallen short of both the full sovereignty Palestinians desire and the hard ethnic separation the Israeli center and left seek. As Susser writes:

The Palestinian state that the Israelis were willing to endorse was never a fully sovereign and independent member of the family of nations, but an emasculated, demilitarized, and supervised entity, with Israeli control of its airspace and possibly of its borders too, and some element of Israeli and/or foreign military presence.

This was as true for Netanyahu as for Olmert, Barak, Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin, who a month before his assassination told the Knesset that the Palestinians would have “less than a state.”

Israel, Susser argues, almost certainly will not achieve an end of conflict, much less recognition of a Jewish state, without meeting Palestinian demands to admit responsibility for the flight and expulsion of refugees of the 1948 war. Israel can point to its acceptance of the UN partition plan that was rejected by Palestinians and Arab nations, which then attacked the new Jewish state. But the forced displacement of a very large number of Palestinians during the war that followed is now a documented reality, one that for most Palestinians supports their claims to return, or to ample compensation for their losses, or to both.23

Many Israeli leaders believe that any such acknowledgment of responsibility or acceptance of Palestinian claims to return would shake the very foundations of the state, undermining its international legitimacy and upending decades of Zionist teaching by conceding that Israel was responsible for forcibly dispossessing large numbers of Palestinian civilians from their land and homes at its birth. Netanyahu understands the size of this obstacle, or once did, yet is moving with Kerry to renew talks based on the foundering 1967 model.

Kerry, like his predecessors, has concentrated on 1967 issues such as borders and security, showing few signs that he has learned from past failures. One hopes that he is not under the mistaken impression that Olmert and Abbas were inches away from a real agreement. Those talks did not come close to resolving even the 1967 issues. What’s more, compared to Olmert, Netanyahu is less desperate, less willing to compromise on 1948 issues, and is making calculations in a region that has become less stable and forgiving of risk.

If renewed talks break down, Israelis may begin asking themselves whether the time has come to abandon hopes of a full peace in order to achieve—perhaps through cease-fires or further unilateral withdrawals—a partial separation. They would thereby create something more than one state but less than two, which is, in fact, all that was ever on offer.