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E-1, Olmert and peace: Are Netanyahu’s detractors hypocrites?

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has been outspoken in assailing the Netanyahu government’s move to begin planning for construction in the so-called E-1 area.

But Olmert’s own history with E-1 — the currently undeveloped area between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim — is drawing similar scrutiny from a strange collection of bedfellows.

From the right, the pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily Israel Hayom noted that in 2006, when Olmert was prime minister, he had said that "it is unthinkable that we would talk about Maaleh Adumim as part of the State of Israel and leave it as an island or isolated enclave. It is absolutely clear that there will be built-up continuity between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim." (Settler spokesman Yisrael Medad found a similar collection of Olmert quotes from before he was prime minister calling for Israel to retain control of E-1 and build there.)

Meanwhile, Palestinian-American writer and activist Yousef Munayyer noted that Olmert’s peace proposals presented to the Palestinians before leaving office would have left E-1 in Israel’s hands. "I don’t recall @jstreetdotorg being so opposed to Olmert’s plan which included E-1, as they are now when Netanyahu does it," Munayyer tweeted.

So are Netanyahu’s detractors hypocrites?

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Israel Hayom has an explanation of the six-year-old quote from a spokesman for the former prime minister:

In response to this quote coming to light, an Olmert spokesperson said on Tuesday that Olmert had always supported construction in E1, but only after a negotiated agreement on the matter.

"Olmert insisted that the area would remain under Israeli sovereignty in a final-status agreement with the intention being to build there to create territorial contiguity with Maaleh Adumim," the Olmert spokesperson said.

By the logic of this explanation, Olmert is not criticizing Netanyahu for supporting development in E-1 but rather for pressing the issue now, before there is agreement on borders with the Palestinians and while the U.S. strongly opposes such a move (as past U.S. administrations also have). That doesn’t seem to be inconsistent with Olmert’s criticism of Netanyahu’s E-1 move. (Though it is a departure from Olmert’s vow shortly before he became prime minister to pursue construction in E-1, a past stance that is noted by Medad.)

In any case, Olmert’s position on E-1 is clearly inconsistent with the views of those who argue that Israeli development in E-1 is wholly incompatible with a two-state solution. (Daniel Seidemann, a dove and leading expert on Jerusalem, argues on Twitter: "E-1 is the ‘binary’ settlement. You can’t support E-1 and support the 2 state solution. If you support 2 states, you MUST oppose E-1.")

But are Netanyahu’s critics guilty of hypocrisy on the issue of E-1? Not necessarily.

Olmert made a far-reaching peace offer to the Palestinians that — judging from maps purporting to reflect his offer — did indeed include continued Israeli control over E-1.

His effort to reach an agreement is appreciated by Israeli and Jewish doves, but that does not mean that they necessarily embrace every single aspect of his proposals. (And at the time that Olmert made the proposals, their contents were not a matter of public knowledge; details came to light only after he left office.)

In addition, Olmert’s proposals were made as part of a negotiating process. They were subject to change. The Palestinians, for their part, apparently did not agree to continued Israeli control over E-1 or, for that matter, Maaleh Adumim (which is, it should be noted, is one of Israel’s most populous West Bank settlements).

To answer Munayyer, this background explains why groups like J Street may not have been pouncing on Olmert’s proposals even as they have strongly criticized Netanyahu’s E-1 plans.

But it is clear that there is a difference of opinion on whether E-1 would preempt the possibility of a two-state solution. While it is conventional wisdom among many of Netanyahu’s critics (including J Street) that the Palestinians absolutely need this territory for a viable state, Olmert obviously does not share this view.

So who is right?

Former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams explains the Israeli case for retaining E-1 (even as he avoids explicitly endorsing this position) and argues that the current controversy is overblown. Open Zion’s Ali Gharib offers a counterargument. And Haaretz has an informative backgrounder on the issue.

UPDATE: Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now has an in-depth look at the issue here.

UPDATE II: Turns out Olmert discussed his past with E-1 at an Israel Policy Forum event in New York. This is from Haaretz’s report:

Olmert said that while he had no doubt that E-1 would ultimately end up in Israeli sovereignty, he recounted requests presented to him by then President Bush and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – both “wonderful friends” of Israel – to refrain from building there “because if you will do that it would be beyond the capacity of the Palestinian leadership to accept it and then come and sit with you.” Olmert said that he told Bush and Rice that E-1 would remain Israeli in any final settlement, but he obviously agreed to honor their request.

“So to choose this particular piece of land in which to build as a public expression of respect and support for the American President who stood up for Israel only two days earlier requires creativity which is beyond my comprehension,” Olmert said sarcastically.

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