Well, well, well, isn’t this awkward? After all that talk about Israel having “no partner” for peace, it turns out the Palestinians were ready to make a deal after all, on terms that weren’t far from Israel’s bottom line.
If you’ve been following the news about the so-called Palestine papers, the newly leaked trove of Palestinian negotiators’ notes, then you’ve probably heard about the Palestine Liberation Organization offering in 2008 to drop the idea of flooding Israel with millions of refugees and their descendants as part of a permanent peace agreement. The offer came during negotiations between PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas and then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Abbas said he was willing to settle for a symbolic “return” of just 100,000, spread out over 10 years. He told his aides it would be “illogical” for Israel to accept all 4 million refugees, since “that would mean the end of Israel.”
Sounds like good news, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s extremely embarrassing. Israel’s leaders and allies have been saying for years that peace was impossible, that Israel was willing to make “painful” concessions but there was nobody to talk to on the Palestinian side. Exhibit A was the oft-stated Palestinian refusal to compromise on the right of return.
Now it appears the Palestinians were willing to settle for much less. That bit about Israel having no partner was a fib.
Speaking of settling, the Palestine papers also describe an emerging deal to let Israel keep most of the main West Bank Jewish settlement blocs in place. Ditto for most of the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians were willing to swap the sections of the West Bank populated by Israelis for equivalent stretches on the Israeli side of the old border. As for the Old City, Israel would keep the Jewish Quarter and parts of the Armenian Quarter, guaranteeing access to the Western Wall. The Temple Mount would belong to no one, but would be administered by a joint authority including Israel, the Palestinians and various outside parties. Not a word questioning Jewish rights in the holy place.
The package still had gaps: Israel offered to take in 5,000 refugees, not 100,000, and the Palestinians insisted on taking over three Israeli urban blocs (Ma’ale Adumim, Har Homa and Ariel) that they say would disrupt their state’s geographic continuity. But these disputes were over details, not principles. There was nothing that a few more rounds of talks couldn’t have cleared up.
All this raises an obvious question: If the two sides were that close, why didn’t they finish the job? The standard Israeli narrative is that they weren’t close — that Olmert made a generous offer but the Palestinians rejected it and walked away. The new documents say the Palestinians didn’t walk away. They say the same thing that Israel’s then foreign minister Tzipi Livni has been saying all along: The talks were suspended because Olmert was about to lose his job. His replacement, Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected the partial agreements and said he wanted to start again from the beginning, and that was that.
A cynic might be tempted to say it was the Palestinians who had no partner. But that would overlook the Palestinian leadership’s contributions to the mess. They never told their public how much they were willing to give up to achieve statehood. No doubt they wanted to hold off admitting how much they were giving away until they could announce how much they were getting in return. That’s a basic rule of negotiating.
Unfortunately, the Palestinian leaders didn’t just keep their cards hidden. They adopted an emphatic public stance that was the opposite of their negotiating position: no compromise on refugees, no deviating from the 1967 borders, no demilitarization, no Israeli presence on the Temple Mount. The result was that the Palestinian public wasn’t prepared for the realities of peace. Not surprisingly, the leak of the Palestinian negotiating positions in January caused an uproar.
Palestinian posturing also helped to undermine the Israeli public’s faith in compromise. Any Israeli watching the news would easily conclude that there was no partner to work with. Even Israelis who believed in Palestinian intentions had to deal with the fact that the PLO had lost Gaza to Hamas. Were they capable of governing, maintaining order, keeping terrorists in check?
On the other hand, the Olmert-Abbas negotiations in 2008 weren’t the first to collapse near the finish line. In October 1995 there were talks between Abbas, then Yasser Arafat’s deputy, and Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister. They reached a draft agreement largely identical to Olmert’s, though Israel got to keep more of East Jerusalem back then. Beilin was supposed to meet with then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to discuss the draft in mid-November 2005, but Rabin was assassinated in the interim. Rabin was replaced by Shimon Peres, who dithered for months and then lost his job to Netanyahu. Do we detect a pattern?
Then came the failed Camp David summit of July 2000. It ended with a bang, attentive readers recall, when then prime minister Ehud Barak made an offer and Arafat stormed out. Barak responded by branding Arafat “no partner.” Never having worked in real estate, Barak apparently failed to recognize the standard negotiating tactic known as the stormy exit. Sure enough, the talks resumed the following January at the Sinai resort of Taba. At this point, however, Israelis were suffering under a wave of Palestinian terrorism. Some say Arafat believed the attacks would soften Israel up for further concessions, but the actual result was the opposite. Israelis hardened and hunkered down. The Taba talks collapsed days after they began when — you guessed it — Barak lost his job.
What’s most shocking about all this is that Israelis by and large aren’t shocked. The progress of negotiations has been common knowledge for years, at least among the well-informed. Enough has leaked out to the press to make these latest leaks sound like more of the same. Some favor the Palestinians’ terms, some think they’re a trap, but few seem to doubt they’re real.
Then there’s the organized American Jewish community. They’ve been caught completely off guard. The leaders of the main centrist organizations, who never lack for grand posturing, were silent as of this writing. The right is in a tizzy, doing handstands to explain it away: It’s a hoax, it’s a plot to discredit the PLO, it’s a plot to whitewash the PLO, it’s a conspiracy engineered by British intelligence (I’m not making that up). The one thing nobody seems able to get their minds around is the idea that Israel might be in the wrong here. That would be much too awkward.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).