The National Post
By Peter Goodspeed
January 30, 2011 – 7:00 am
It could have been a breathtaking piece of history that transformed the political and psychological map of the Middle East.
For two hours, on the evening of Sept. 16, 2008, Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, entertained Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, in his Jerusalem home.
After decades of mistrust, misunderstanding and hatred, the two leaders were poised to bring peace to the promised land with a new Palestinian state.
“I began by presenting the principles of the arrangement that I was proposing,” Mr. Olmert says in memoirs being excerpted this weekend in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
“After I finished, Abu Mazen [Mr. Abbas] sighed deeply, and asked to see the map that I had prepared. I spread it out. He looked at it, and I looked at him. He was silent.”
The map proposed a new Palestinian state should be established on 93.5% of the West Bank, while receiving another 5.8% through a land exchange with Israel.
The rest of the new Palestine would be composed of a “safe passage” corridor linking the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
Israeli-Palestine peace talks: Issues yet to be resolved
The map left major Israeli settlement blocs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in Israel’s control in exchange for the Palestinians receiving land in the southern Hebron Hills, the Judean Hills and the Beit She’an Valley.
All told, Mr. Abbas was being offered a new state with an area equal to the whole of the West Bank and Gaza.
The new Palestine would have no military; a U.S.-led international security force, not Israeli soldiers, would guard its border with Jordan.
As for Jerusalem, a city of hard rock and weathered stone that lies at the epicentre of conflict in the Middle East, Mr. Olmert proposed partitioning its Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods, allowing both Israelis and Palestinians to use the city as their capital.
The Old City’s “holy basin” — the Temple Mount/Haram as-Sharif and al-Aqsa mosque–would be managed by an international committee governed by Israel, Palestine, the United States, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“Never before had any Israeli prime minister presented such a crystallized and detailed position about resolving the conflict as was presented to him on that day,” Mr. Olmert writes.
“For the first time since the negotiations began, I was very tense. For the first time since I had become prime minister, I truly felt the weight of Jewish history on my shoulders, and despite the fact that I was confident that I was doing the right thing, the negotiations were very heavy.”
Mr. Abbas seemed to hesitate. After eight months of intense negotiations with the Israelis, during which the Palestinians had offered a string of major concessions and repeatedly been rebuffed and pressed to give up more, he had concluded the gaps between the two parties were too big to result in a peace agreement.
The Palestinians had already offered to surrender their claims to huge chunks of East Jerusalem, abandoned demands for the return to Israel of Palestinian refugees in surrounding Arab countries and agreed to share Jerusalem and it holy sites.
But Mr. Olmert, whose political career was ending in scandal and shame, under threat of indictment for a string of corruption cases, was just one day away from being pushed out of the leadership of his party in disgrace. He had come up with his comprehensive peace proposal at the last possible minute.
Mr. Abbas said he couldn’t decide. He needed time.
“I told him that he was making an historic mistake,” Mr. Olmert recalls.
“Give me the map so that I can consult with my colleagues,” Mr. Abbas said.
“No,” Mr. Olmert replied, fearing the Palestinians would use a copy of the map in another round of negotiations to demand more concessions.
“Take the pen and sign now,” Mr. Olmert said.
“You’ll never get an offer that is more fair or more just. Don’t hesitate. This is hard for me too, but we don’t have an option of not resolving [the conflict] .”
“I saw that he was agonizing [over it],” he goes on. “In the end he said to me, ‘Give me a few days. I don’t know my way around maps. I propose that tomorrow we meet with two map experts, one from your side and one from our side. If they tell me that everything is all right, we can sign.’ “
A day later– the same day Mr. Olmert was replaced as leader of the Kadima party by his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni — Palestinian negotiators called the Israeli prime minister back to say Mr. Abbas had forgot he had an appointment in Jordan and had to postpone their meeting.
“I haven’t met with Abu Mazen since then,” Mr. Olmert writes. “The map stayed with me.”
However, Mr. Abbas drew a rough sketch of the proposal on a napkin. He used that to produce an alternative Palestinian map later presented to officials in the outgoing Bush administration, as well as to incoming President Barack Obama’s new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.
By March 2009, Israel had a new right-wing coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who firmly rejected any suggestion of sharing or dividing Jerusalem and was determined to expand Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
Mr. Netanyahu said he wanted to start the negotiations over and refused to pick up where the last round left off, because he felt Mr. Olmert had made too many concessions.
When U.S. officials tried to present Mr. Netanyahu’s representative, Isaac Molcho, with a copy of the new Palestinian map as a counter-proposal to Mr. Olmert’s, Mr. Molcho refused to accept the document.
This week, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, floated the idea of cutting a temporary agreement with the Palestinian Authority that would create a new Palestinian state with interim borders that encompass only 40% to 50% of the West Bank.
The new Israeli proposal would essentially freeze the existing situation and would not involve Israel evacuating West Bank settlements or transferring significant additional territory to the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Lieberman also hopes it would pre-empt any international pressure to declare the peace process a failure and recognize a Palestinian state based on the West Bank’s pre-1967 borders.
After a Palestinian state is established within provisional borders, Israeli officials say they would be prepared to resume diplomatic negotiations on the possibility of adding additional territory.
Needless to say, the Palestinians aren’t thrilled with the new reduced proposal, especially as it has been presented when Israel is stepping up settlement building on the West Bank.
But pressure for a peace deal is intensifying. The latest round of talks has exacerbated relations with Hamas, the radical Islamist group that occupies Gaza, and fears are growing that failure could trigger violence like that which occurred after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David negotiations.
With the Arab world in turmoil, rocked by pro-democracy riots in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the Palestinians face their own crisis of leadership and the Palestinian Authority may soon have to worry about renewing its mandate.