Zvika Krieger
The Atlantic (Opinion)
October 28, 2011 - 12:00am

Newsweek's cover story this week features excerpts from former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's upcoming memoir, in which she reveals details of private interactions she had with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as she oversaw their negotiations beginning with the Annapolis process in 2008. She felt like her efforts were on the precipice of "push[ing] the peace process to a new level," and is quite breathless in reflecting on the Olmert's "remarkable" concessions in his private discussions with her, particularly on Jerusalem:

"Am I really hearing this? I wondered. Is the Israeli prime minister saying that he'll divide Jerusalem and put an international body in charge of the Holy sites? Concentrate. Write this down. No, don't write it down. What if it leaks? It can't leak; it's just the two of us."

The reality is that these "historic" Israeli concessions about Jerusalem were actually on the table as early as July 2000, and were even made official in December of that year with the Clinton Parameters. The fact that such a position is seen as "extraordinary news" (even by a Secretary of State!) is an illustration of the massive disconnect between popular discourse on the conflict and what the two sides' actual positions have been at the negotiating table. (Stay tuned to "Is Peace Possible?" for a thorough analysis of the various proposals on Jerusalem.)

Rice's piece does help push back against the emerging narrative of Palestinian rejectionism during the Annapolis process. (David Ignatius, who also exaggerates the newness of Olmert's Jerusalem concessions in a column on Rice's memoir in today's Washington Post says Abbas left the table because he "apparently decided he could get a better deal with a Democratic president.") Regardless of how charitable you judge Olmert's offer, he was a lame-duck prime minister who had no popular mandate and was about to be voted out of office. It is difficult to blame the Palestinians for balking at a deal with such a precarious partner. As Rice herself said, "We knew it was a long shot. Olmert had announced in the summer that he would step down as prime minister. Israel would hold elections in the first part of the next year." Even Olmert's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was against signing a rushed deal. "He has no standing in Israel," she told Rice.

Ultimately, Rice lays the blame on Abbas for ending the negotiations with Olmert:

"Abbas refused [Olmert's offer]. ... We had one last chance. The two leaders came separately in November and December to say good-bye. The President took Abbas into the Oval Office alone and appealed to him to reconsider. The Palestinian stood firm, and the idea died."

Abbas, however, disputes that narrative. In an interview with the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat on December 20, 2009, Abbas said it was Israel that halted discussions:

"We did not stop the negotiations, we did not reject the negotiations, and they did not reject them. We went back to Washington, but the aggression on Gaza [Operation Cast Lead] exploded. Nevertheless, Saeb Erekat [head of the PLO Negotiations Department] contacted [Israeli negotiator] Shalom Turgeman six or seven times, and said to him: Shalom, we agreed with Rice to go to Washington on 3 January. Shalom's answer was: The situation is as you can see. Saeb said to him: What can we do then? Turgeman answered: Wait a little... We were ready to continue the negotiations... until the day of the war."

Erekat confirms this narrative later in the interview:

"I agreed with Turgeman to meet in Washington on 3 January; however, on the morning of 28 December, i.e. the morning of the war, while we were in Riyadh Airport in Saudi Arabia, I telephoned him, and he said: We have started to strike at Gaza, and we will not go to Washington."

When the reporters asked Abbas point-blank if it was the Israelis who rejected the meeting in Washington, Abbas answered, "Yes."

Regardless of who pulled the plug, it is clear from all accounts that Olmert's offer did go further than his predecessors in many ways, as you can see in this section of the "Is Peace Possible?" Borders chapter, which showcases detailed maps of both sides' offers. (Stay tuned for analysis of his offers on Jerusalem and Refugees in the chapters on those issues, which will be launched in the coming weeks.) While there is still a significant gap between the two sides on Borders, there are a number of proposals (some of which you can see here) that successfully find a middle ground.

One last tidbit from Rice's piece: While many point to the inherent asymmetry involved in an established military power like Israel negotiating with the ramshackle Palestinian Authority, Rice describes a little-discussed imbalance in the other direction:

There was something of an asymmetry since the Palestinian team was experienced, having negotiated the issues for more than fifteen years. Like the back of their hands, the team members knew the ins and outs of the maps, the nuances of the phrases, and the history of the conflict.

This is just one of the many ways that Israel's ever-rotating political system complicates the task of negotiating a peace agreement.


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