Essay: The Third Rejection
Jun 30, 2023 | Salo Aizenberg
Mahmoud Abbas and the Olmert peace offer
Characterised as a “crime” and a “tragedy” by then-US Ambassador Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, Yasser Arafat’s rejection of the Bill Clinton-brokered 2000-2001 peace deal appeared to be the nail in the coffin for the elusive two-state solution.
While it was undeniably a lost opportunity, a similar offer of statehood was proposed to the Palestinians by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in September 2008. Unfortunately, Olmert’s offer was met with the same response by Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas: rejection through silence, with no counter-offer.
But why do proponents of the anti-Israel narrative pretend that Olmert’s statehood offer did not occur or was inconsequential?
The truth is that three consecutive Israeli leaders – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Olmert – sought to hand over permanent control of territory to the Palestinians, which is frequently ignored by the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as they perpetuate the notion that Israel wishes to control and dominate the Palestinian people.
If they would actually acknowledge that Israel offered full statehood on territory equal to 100% of the West Bank and Gaza, then the image of a perpetually intransigent Israel that refuses to end its occupation would be proven false.
Olmert’s Promise of Peace
Following Olmert’s Kadima Party triumph in the March 2006 election, he indicated a desire to seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians through the creation of a Palestinian state in his first policy speech.
Despite dealing with the Israel-Hezbollah war in the Summer of 2006 and an airstrike against a suspected nuclear reactor being built in Syria in September 2007, Olmert actively pursued a two-state solution with the Palestinians throughout his term as prime minister.
The peace process under Olmert formally began at the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 and sought to follow the so-called “Roadmap for Peace” as proposed by President George W. Bush in June 2002.
The roadmap was a phased plan that would if fulfilled eventually lead to full Palestinian statehood.
Over the course of several months, Olmert and Abbas met 36 times, mostly in Jerusalem and once in Jericho. There were approximately 300 meetings among senior officials and professional committees from both sides.
A key understanding of the negotiations was that “nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon,” which meant that no position on any matter was final until an entire deal was final.
After months of discussion and negotiations, the process culminated in September 2008, with Olmert presenting a final proposal that included a package of concessions based on many rounds of prior discussions, along with the latest version of a map based on prior negotiations on land swaps.
- The creation of an independent Palestinian state with contiguity on 93.7% of the West Bank, with the other 6.3% comprising major settlement blocks that would be permanently added to the State of Israel. As compensation, Israel would swap 5.8% of its territory to the Palestinian state, and the other half percent from a dedicated highway would be built inside pre-1967 Israel to connect the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
- Jerusalem would be divided under the basic principle that Jewish neighbourhoods built after 1967 would remain as part of Israel, and Arab neighbourhoods that were not part of Israel before 1967 would be part of the Palestinian state.
- The Temple Mount would be placed under an international trusteeship led by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the US, Israel, and the Palestinians.
- Regarding the so-called “Right of Return,” Palestinian refugees would not be able to “return” to locations inside Israel. Israel would agree to a symbolic number, and working with international bodies, establish a fund to provide reparations to both Palestinians and Israelis harmed by the 1948 conflict.
The Palestinian Rejection
According to Olmert, Abbas replied that he did not want to sign the agreement upon it being presented to him, and wanted to hold further discussions about the map with his team of experts before acceptance. The two sides would meet the next day, Abbas said.
However, the Palestinian side never returned for the meeting on the next day, and never communicated again about the negotiations. It was total silence from that point onward, and the Sept. 16, 2008, meeting ended up being the last between the parties after a nearly year-long process.
By never showing up for the follow-up meeting and never offering any other type of response or move to restart the negotiations, it was effectively a complete rejection. Abbas played the exact same move as Arafat almost eight years earlier – simply walking away without responding and ending months of negotiations without another word.
What The Key Players Said
In an op-ed that Olmert wrote in the Washington Post in July 2009, one of his earliest comments on the events of the prior year, he said:
“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 realise the ‘two-state solution’ in accordance with the principles of the US 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.”
Abbas made statements in November 2015 in which he acknowledged the main details of the statehood offer and admitted rejecting Olmert’s offer because he was not allowed to study the map that Olmert presented to him:
“He [Olmert] showed me the map. He didn’t give me the map … he told me, “This is the map” and took it away. I respected his point of view, but how can I sign something that I didn’t receive.”
Abbas neglected to mention that Olmert did not present the map as a final take-it-or-leave opportunity at that very moment, and that Olmert specifically accepted further review of the map and that the Palestinian negotiation team had agreed to review the map the following day. Abbas also omitted the fact that the Palestinians never communicated with the Israelis ever again about the matter.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made clear that a refusal to budge on maximalist Palestinian positions was the true reason why these proposals were rejected, rather than not being able to review a map: “There will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem – with every single stone in it – becomes the capital of Palestine.”
In a December 2018 interview on official PA television, Erekat again confirmed the parameters of Olmert’s offer, indicating that the total land area for a Palestinian state was actually greater than the total area of the West Bank and Gaza Strip:
“I heard Olmert say that he offered [Abbas] 100% of the West Bank territory. This is true. I’ll testify to this. He [Olmert] presented a map [to Abbas], and said: ‘I want [Israel] to take 6.5% of the West Bank, and I’ll give [the PA] 6.5% of the 1948 territory in return.” [Olmert] said to Abbas: ‘The area of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the eve of June 4, 1967, was 6,235 sq. km. [I, Erekat, said to Abbas]: ‘There are 50 sq. km. of no man’s land in Jerusalem and Latrun. We’ll split them between us, so the territory will be 6,260 sq. km.’ [I said to Abbas:] ‘Olmert wants to give you 20 sq. km. more, so that you could say [to Palestinians]: ‘I got more than the 1967 territories.’ Regarding Jerusalem, [Olmert said:] ‘What’s Arab is Arab, and what’s Jewish is Jewish, and we’ll keep it an open city.’”
As Secretary of State under President Bush, Rice was involved in every aspect of the peace negotiations from Annapolis through to the end of the Bush Administration in January 2009.
Rice published a lengthy memoir in 2011, and in the last chapter recounts the final days of the Olmert-Abbas negotiations. Rice confirms the basic elements of Olmert’s proposal on September 16, 2008, and the planned meeting the following day, which never took place. Rice recounts that after the “no show,” she asked her team to construct an approximation of the territorial compromise to “preserve the Olmert offer.” Rice asked President Bush to host Olmert and Abbas one last time to perhaps convince them to accept the parameters of the proposal. Rice was aware that Olmert was a lame-duck prime minister. However, Rice believed that “to have an Israeli prime minister on record offering these remarkable elements and a Palestinian president accepting them would have pushed the peace process to a new level.” The proposed final meeting never occurred, as Rice explains: “Abbas refused”.
Abrams was closely involved in all matters related to the negotiations for the US as Deputy National Security Adviser.
On the matter of the Olmert statehood offer, Abrams wrote in his 2013 book, Tested by Zion:
“The Palestinians did not believe they were missing an irreplaceable opportunity. Although they were told they would never again see this combination of Israeli prime minister and American president so keen on a deal, they had heard that before. In 2001, the American negotiator Dennis Ross said precisely the same thing to Arafat about the Barak government and Clinton… Yet Arafat had let the deal pass, Abbas watched him do so, and now Abbas took the same action: inaction.
“The Palestinians did not wish to sign but also wished to escape being blamed for saying no.”
The Palestine Papers
In January 2011, Al Jazeera obtained more than 1,600 previously secret documents regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The documents comprised detailed memos, emails, maps, minutes from meetings, and strategy papers covering a period from 1999 to 2010.
The Palestine Papers, which have been authenticated and are not in dispute, generated outrage among many Palestinians who saw that Palestinian negotiators were actually considering Israeli proposals, such as those that would compromise on the full and literal “right of return”. The outrage compelled Saeb Erekat to write a response stating that negotiators “made no backroom deals” and that “no agreement has ever been reached between the parties on any of the permanent status issues.”
Importantly, the Palestine Papers contradict the narrative put forward by some that Abbas was unable to agree to Olmert’s proposal because he and his team needed more time to study the map. In fact, based on earlier discussions and detailed proposals, the Palestinian negotiating team already drew up a highly detailed map based on numerous rounds of discussions and a later meeting held on Aug. 31, 2008.
The fateful and final meeting on Sept. 16, 2008, was effectively the end of the peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. After about ten months of discussions that began at Annapolis, the final Palestinian response was a no-show with no further explanation or counteroffer.
We can look to reporting by the New York Times as a good proxy for how these events were conveyed to the world at the time: on Sept. 16 and 17, the newspaper reported that Olmert met with Abbas for two hours in Jerusalem and that Olmert was “keen to reach some kind of historic peace agreement with the Palestinians before he finally ends his term.”
Similar to the sequence of events and reporting in the final weeks of the Clinton Administration, the media was not made aware of the details of the meeting as there was still hope that a deal could be reached. On Sept. 29, 2008, the New York Times reported that Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said that Olmert, “had not yet presented a detailed plan for a border between Israel and a Palestinian state.” But today we know that Olmert in fact did so and that the Palestinians had in their possession a detailed map of the proposal.
Media Indifference and Burial
The events of September 2008 remained unknown to most of the world until Saeb Erekat gave an interview to Al Jazeera TV on March 27, 2009. Until then, there had not been a public admission by the Palestinians of the Olmert offer and Palestinian rejection.
Mark Lavie, an Associated Press (AP) journalist in the Jerusalem bureau, claimed that he became aware of Erekat’s interview and admissions and sought to run the story through AP, but was banned by AP’s Jerusalem chief from publishing the story. According to Lavie, AP rejected the story since, “the bureau’s editorial line was still that the conflict was Israel’s fault, and the Palestinians and the Arab world were blameless.”
Coverage in the first years after Olmert’s offer was scant, in part because many of the key negotiators had not yet revealed details of the peace process.
Olmert wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in September 2011, where he recounted the details of the offer he made to Abbas. AP ran a story about the Olmert offer and Abbas’ rejection only several years later in November 2015, following Abbas’ admission on Israeli television of the offer and his rejection. According to the 2015 AP story, Abbas rejected the offer “because he was not allowed to study the map” – but we of course know today that this narrative is false.
Revisionists have provided Arafat with myriad and endless excuses for why he was justified in saying no. However, the Abbas rejection is not generally disputed, in large part because of the public and specific admissions by Abbas and Erekat of the events. Apologists typically repeat the falsehood that Abbas was not allowed to review a map or that there was no formal offer in writing, but again, after 36 meetings between the two sides, the details of the statehood offer were well known to both sides.
A Certain Failure
Would an affirmative response by Abbas have led to a final end-of-conflict agreement?
There were certainly major concerns, such as Olmert’s weak position as prime minister and evidence that in the later stages, his successor, Tzipi Livni, attempted to undermine the process. Despite these flaws, the Americans believed that if the two leaders came to an agreement, momentum would prevail, and that no subsequent leader would reverse course and say no to the deal.
Rice makes this exact argument, writing in her conclusion on this topic: “Had Abbas expressed a willingness to accept the extraordinary terms he’d been offered, it might have been a turning point in the long history of the intractable conflict.”
There is no way to know of course, but the Palestinian rejection ensured certain failure. What is beyond doubt is that a sitting Israeli prime minister was ready to agree to a definitive peace agreement that would establish a Palestinian state on territory equal to 100% of the West Bank and Gaza, but Abbas said no by refusing to show up to a follow-up meeting and never offering another response or counteroffer.
The real reason for the rejection was not Olmert’s weak standing: it was Abbas’ unwillingness to budge from maximalist Palestinian demands, even if it meant losing out on the chance for Palestinian statehood. The notion of Israel seeking to permanently “dominate” Palestinians or “perpetually occupy” them is completely shattered by the Olmert offer and the Barak offer several years earlier.
Anti-Israel discourse deliberately omits or falsifies these events to promote a fabricated narrative of an intransigent Israel unwilling to make peace and end its control of the West Bank.