Ehud Olmert buries the lede


The strongest argument in Ehud Olmert’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post comes toward the end, with his plea to examine why, 16 years after the launch of Oslo, Palestinians seem unable to embrace its fundamental outlines: Two states, with a Jewish stake in Jerusalem.

To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them. My proposal included a solution to all outstanding issues: territorial compromise, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees.

It would be worth exploring the reasons that the Palestinians rejected my offer and preferred, instead, to drag their feet, avoiding real decisions. My proposal would have helped realize the "two-state solution" in accordance with the principles of the U.S. administration, the Israeli government I led and the criteria the Palestinian leadership has followed throughout the years.

I believe it is crucial to review the lessons from the Palestinians’ rejection of such an offer.

It’s an important question, and timely for me. I’m writing a story for next week on whether folks here are doing enough to explain to the Palestinians how their bad faith is counterproductive (just as plenty of folks here are explaining exactly that to the Netanyahu government). I just asked Ned Walker and Sam Lewis, two former U.S. diplomats who worked the Middle East, what they thought the answer was. Walker and Lewis, speaking on an Israeli Policy Forum conference call to promote this policy paper, agreed that Olmert’s proposal — 100 percent of 1967 lands once swaps are taken into account, sharing Jerusalem, Temple Mount under international control and a symbolic absorption of Palestinian refugees — was generous, but noted that it was proffered after Olmert had formally resigned as prime minister.

"You cant push them to accept an offer from a prime minister who’s no longer a prime minister," Lewis said, noting that Yasser Arafat faced essentially the same dilemma with Ehud Barak in 2000. "You accept an offer and then you no longer have a partner."

True enough, but it doesn’t really explain Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas channeling Yitzhak Shamir circa 1991 and adopting a "sit and wait" posture, outlined here and also by his chief negotiator Saeb Erakat. Off, and less frequently on (I’ll have more on Monday but for an example see this expert quoted the other day by Xinhua), advocates for the Palestinians explain this recalcitrance as having to do with political realities, not wanting to get too far ahead of the constituents, not being outflanked by Hamas, etc. etc.

This is hogwash (hey, we’re a family wire) — the job of leaders is to lead, even when they are at their weakest. The Orthodox Union, correctly, suggests that point here. If you don’t get ahead of the hatred, you don’t get ahead.

But it’s also hogwash when the argument is made on the Israeli side, and it’s unfortunate that Olmert sacrifices the placement of his correct question – What, exactly, are the Palestinians after? — with yet another weaselly (and frankly nonsensical) "we can’t concede land unless you let us populate it" argument:

During the run-up to Annapolis and in meetings there, I elaborated to the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership that Israel would continue to build in the settlements in accordance with the above criteria.

Let me be clear: Without those understandings, the Annapolis process would not have taken on any form. Therefore, the focus on settlement construction now is not useful.

Dude: lead. If settlements are a problem, stop them. If they are not a problem please explain, in detail, how the Palestinians emerge as equals in a society where settlements flourish. (Sincerely, please explain. No one has.) If you don’t get ahead of pretending Palestinians aren’t there, you don’t get ahead.

But the other problem I have with Olmert’s article — the logical breakdown that advocates of the so-called understandings with the Bush administration have yet to get around — is the parenthetical aside at the end of Olmert’s summary of the understandings:

[Then-Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon reached understandings with the U.S. administration regarding the growth and building of settlements, as part of the road map. The understandings included that:

— No new settlements would be constructed.

— No new land would be allocated or confiscated for settlement construction.

— Any construction in the settlements would be within current building lines.

— There would be no provision of economic incentives promoting settlement growth.

— The unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 would be dismantled (a commitment that Israel, regrettably, has not yet fulfilled).

"Regrettably?" Doesn’t this mean that it was Israel that suspended the understanding? Am I nuts to think this?

Here’s Elliott Abrams, the most outspoken defender of the settlements understanding, making the same point in the Washington Post:

Israel has largely, but not fully, kept to those rules; there has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake: It wastes Israeli resources and needlessly antagonizes the Palestinians who live nearby.

I’ve argued elsewhere that this agreement never appears to have kicked in because its specifics were never fully determined (although evidence suggests Bush and Sharon discussed parameters in 2003); and here are two of its staunchest defenders acknowledging that Israeli governments broke it. Might this not explain why no one from the Bush administration save for Abrams is willing to validate this deal?

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