New York Times
By BERNARD AVISHAI
Published: February 7, 2011
The street demonstrations roiling the Arab world have riveted and moved many Americans, who have visions of democracy sweeping through northern Africa and the Middle East. As I write this, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, has announced he will not stand for re-election, as has Yemen’s longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Tunisia’s ruler fled, and the nation has a new government; King Abdullah of Jordan replaced his own cabinet and now has a prime minister who promises reform. There are even stirrings in Syria. President Obama has signaled his determination to support democratization in the region, as promised in his 2009 Cairo speech, and not to remain tied to authoritarian regimes.
In Israel, by contrast, there is fear. Whatever their doubts about how Egypt and Jordan were ruled, most Israelis counted on the Mubarak and Hashemite regimes, if not as true allies then at least as stable neighbors committed to the peace treaties they signed. Israelis understand that their occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza are sources of rage in the Arab street, but many have come to believe that the peace process is futile — especially since President Obama seems to have despaired of achieving meaningful negotiations — and they fear democracy will bring Islamists to power, or at least encourage anti-Israeli politicians. They feel a strategic pillar has been kicked from under them, and the regional unrest only strengthens their sense that they must defend themselves against, rather than make peace with, the Palestinians.
Yet amid this turmoil are opportunities, not the least of which is precisely the chance to end the Israeli occupation and found a Palestinian state. A viable plan exists: it is waiting to be forged from the far-reaching proposals that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority made to each other in 2008. We had a glimpse in mid-January of these negotiations — the “Palestine Papers,” leaked by Al Jazeera; and then excerpts from Ehud Olmert’s memoir, published in Israel. But the picture emerging from these accounts was unfocused and confusing, and the achievements of the negotiators were lost in the excitement generated in the streets of Tunis and Cairo. Yet the Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2007 and 2008 provide an invaluable template for a new, Obama-led push for peace. As unlikely as it might sound, now is the time. Obama’s hand in Israel has been strengthened by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. At the same time, the U.S. is paying a growing price for the current impasse between Israel and Palestine and the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, for which Americans receive much of the blame. A settlement in Palestine will not put bread on Egyptian tables, but it will transform American status in the region. And it might rescue the fortunes of Israel.
OVER THE COURSE of almost two years, from December 2006 to mid-September 2008, Olmert and Abbas met 36 times. Lower-level talks were also going on, led by Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Tzipi Livni, and one of the Palestinian Authority’s longtime negotiators, Ahmed Qurei. These talks were the source for the “Palestine Papers” published by Al Jazeera just last month: notes from the Palestinian side on how negotiations were going. The top-level talks were considerably more important. The leaders never consummated a deal. But both had gone far enough to tee up new American “bridging proposals” that Abbas, in particular, was counting on. I spoke with Olmert this year in Jerusalem on the morning of Jan. 21, and that same evening with Abbas in Amman, Jordan. The leaders revealed in detail what was proposed, what was implicitly agreed, what the gaps were and what they suggested was susceptible to compromise.
Each told me that if new violence breaks out in Palestine, as seems quite likely, historians will look back with a sense of pathos on how narrow and, in some key areas, trivial the gaps were. “We were very close,” Olmert told me, “more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians.” Abbas said the talks produced more “creative ideas” than any in the past. He took pains to assure me that he had been most flexible on Israel’s security demands. Olmert, in retrospect, agrees, saying that Abbas “had never said no.” Olmert insisted that he had conceded to Abbas every major demand Palestinians had made for decades: a border based scrupulously on the 1967 lines, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and “recognition of the problem” of refugees. “I was ready to take complete responsibility and move forward forcefully,” Olmert told me. “I believed, I still believe, that I would have broken through all the barriers and won over public opinion in this country and the world.”
THE ISSUES THAT were supposed to be intractable — demilitarization of the Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees — proved susceptible to creative thinking. Even on borders, Olmert and Abbas were able to agree on fundamentals: a desire to disrupt as few lives as possible and to maximize the contiguity (and therefore the economic possibility) of Palestinian cities. “We didn’t waste a minute during our months of negotiation,” Abbas said.
Where bridging proposals seemed most called for was over the extent and nature of land to be swapped — in effect, the fate of specific large Israeli settlements. The Israeli position, where it diverged from the Palestinian, was not about principle but focused primarily on the practical matter of how many (often violent) settlers the Israeli government would have to force back behind the Green Line. The most important discussions were on security, borders, Jerusalem and the Palestinian “right of return.”
The Question of Security
In his pivotal Bar Ilan University speech of June 14, 2009, Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally promised to work toward a Palestinian state and made much of his demand that Palestine be demilitarized. But he must have known he was pushing on an open door: Olmert and Abbas had already come up with a series of principles that would leave Palestine demilitarized (“I agreed to the term ‘nonmilitarized,’ ” Olmert told me) while preserving its sovereignty.