Welcome to part two of my post about the Geneva Convention’s 19 September conference, Israel and the Palestinians: Decision Time. In the previous post, I summed up the talks given by three Israeli academic voices, Matti Steinberg, Tal Becker, and Tamar Hermann. In this post, I will over a summary and broad analysis of the keynote address given by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
By way of introduction, Geneva Initiative Director General Gadi Baltiansky noted that it is the belief of the initiative and its supporters that it is in Israel’s primary interest to come to a decision regarding peace with the Palestinians by way of a diplomatic agreement. However, by failing to come to a decision, this is also a decision of sorts. Without taking the risk of making an agreement, Israel may be taking a greater risk in terms of further harming its international legitimacy, domestic stability, and national future. With regard to Mr. Olmert, he admitted that he and most of the audience has certainly not agreed with everything that he has said in the past, nor everything which he was likely to present that day. That said, Israelis must be thankful for his service to the country and take time to listen to how the former PM has learned from the past and introduced new ideas for the future.
Mr. Olmert opened by speaking about recent controversies that have emerged surrounding the impending publication of his memoirs, particularly as they relate to the founding of Kadima and the reactions of those who were not welcomed into the new party as well as his relationship with current Defense Minister Ehud Barak. I will not bother with the details here as Olmert avoided them himself and they are not particularly relevant to the subject at hand. That said, if you want to read about the row, there is an informative article which can be found on the Haaretz website.
He next congratulated PM Netanyahu for his efforts to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority. While he personally would prefer direct talks without the involvement of a third party, in this case the United States, he believes that this is an important step forward. Defending his own record, Mr. Olmert pointed out that he was the first Israeli leader to engage in direct discussions with the Palestinians after the Hitnatkut (Gaza Disengagement) and that the meetings occurring today are a direct product of his government’s initiatives.
Mr. Olmert then addressed his personal views on the conflict stating that he was not ashamed to admit that his positions have changed dramatically over the years. The reality today is not what it was 25 or 30 years ago, and what he wanted for Israel then is not what he believes is possible for the country today. More importantly, the question is not of what has been but what will be. Nothing, he argued, is more important that determining an outline for the end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli public should be welcoming and even encouraging of Bibi’s current efforts.
Following the themes of the previous speakers, he asserted that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is in Israel’s best interests. Moreover, anyone who believes that such an agreement is much more or only in the interests of the Palestinians has an incorrect understanding of reality. Israel, he argued, must reach a final understanding, even if it imposes hurdles, “as fast as possible” on core issues. In order to achieve any breakthroughs on more technical issues like water, economic cooperation, or even future security arrangements requires first a settlement on core issues.
This will be achieved, he claimed, with the help of “a very decent” American administration whom he believes to be very supportive of Israel. There is a belief that there never was as close a friend of Israel as former American President George W. Bush. But on his positions concerning an agreement with the Palestinians, there is no difference between what his was and those of current President Barack Obama. How then can one be considered hostile to Israel and the other an advocate? “There is no foundation to these claims.”
Mr. Olmert then laid out five central issues which he believes Israel and the Palestinians must address in order to set the stage for a permanent resolution of the conflict. First, any agreement must be based on the pre-1967. This is the only position to which the Palestinian leadership will agree and the only one which he believes is feasible. There will certainly be territorial swaps, here noting a letter from President Bush dated 14 April 2004 which noted his support for Israel’s continued control over three major settlement blocs. However, if the Israeli leadership would only openly and clearly state that it was committed to a resolution of the conflict on the basis of 1967, it would “echo throughout the region” and affect the “whole atmosphere of the talks.” Such a negotiating position, he believes, would change the “whole situation.”
Second, with regard to Jerusalem, Mr Olmert believes that there is no other practical formula to adopt that those conceived under the 2000 Clinton Parameters, namely that all the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem built after 1967 would be under Israeli sovereignty and all the Palestinians neighborhoods would be under Palestinians sovereignty. In this way, Jerusalem would become the capital for both an Israeli and Palestinian state. This, he argued, “Must be said, one way or another. Anyone who says that peace can be made without doing this is deluding themselves.” If Israel does not take this position, there will be no end to the conflict. Olmert claimed that he said and offered as much at his final meeting with the Palestinian Authority on 13 December 2008, and that there were at least a few people in the hall who could bear witness to this.
Third, he argued that as the former mayor of Jerusalem, there is no one who struggled as hard to preserve the unity of Jerusalem, and, perhaps, under Arafat, there was no other way to proceed. However it is 2010 now, and “we will not be able to reach an agreement if anyone exclusively claims the ‘Holy Basin.’” Nothing is closer to his heart than the ethos of Jewish and Israeli history in Jerusalem and as mayor he did all he could to ensure a united city. In particularly, he claimed that his administration worked to improve the lives of Palestinian Jerusalemites, opening for them new schools, increasing public services, etc in hopes that they would be happier living in Israel. “This makes no difference.”
These steps, he argued, cannot be a substitute for clear, direct, and far reaching solutions for sovereignty in the Holy Basin. “It is not going to be ours or the Palestinians’.” This whole area, he insisted, should be seen as one unit, and it must be under an international trusteeship, which would ensure free access for all. If Israel and the Palestinians are able to reach an agreement on such a contentious space, “the whole world would tremble with excitement,” and would have an impact on the international atmosphere in a way that cannot be comprehended.
This, he claimed, had already been offered by his administration to the Palestinians in a clear and meaningful way. While such a proposal is bound to be unpopular with the Israeli public and might threaten the incumbency of the sitting government, Olmert believes that this is the duty of every PM to fulfill the “supreme national goals,” no matter the cost to ones own political standing. He did not comment on why Israelis should expect that having apparently already offered this major concession to the Palestinians, they would now agree. Nor did he offer any detail on how such an offer would actually be received by the Israeli public or why, if he had made such an offer, he never said so publically (to the best of my knowledge) during his tenure in office.
Fourth, he addressed the issue of Palestinian refugees. Recognizing the weight and seriousness of this problem as well as its political and demographic consequences for Israel, Mr. Olmert asserted that the problem of refugees cannot be solved in the borders of the State of Israel. Nor does anyone who is serious about resolving the conflict, believe that this should be considered. However, he stated that he was the first Israeli Prime Minister in 60 years to publically acknowledge the suffering of Palestinian refugees. “To feel empathy for those who used to be the inhabitants, those who used to be residents” of this land does not diminish, minimize, or negate Jewish national trauma. But just as Israelis expect Palestinians to recognize their suffering, so too should Israelis recognize the Palestinian national trauma.
As for a resolution of the refugee problem, he again asserted that it is simply not possible nor conceivable to absorb them into Israel. This is the purpose of a Palestinian state. Even the Saudi Peace Initiative does not insist that Israel absorb large numbers into its borders, while Israel would be prepared to allow some symbolic immigration; “not 20, 30, 40, or 50 thousand,” but some. Here he also made the claim that the American Bush Administration had suggested that it would be willing to absorb some 100,000 Palestinian refugees. This claim was quickly denied the next day by former Bush Administration officials, but did generate significant press here in Israel.
Finally, Mr. Olmert addressed the issue of Israeli national security in any peace agreement with the Palestinians. Here he asserted that the Bush administration had given its approval for all “eight” points presented by Israel in an exchange in November 2008 while the Palestinians had expressed no open reservations about them. He unfortunately did not detail any of these points, but apparently they included understandings regarding the border between Jordan and an emergent Palestinian state and a territorial linkage between the West Bank and Gaza. Had only the PA been prepared at the time to go the “extra mile”, there would have been an agreement. He also asserted that on the Syrian front, it was possible to negotiate with Damascus at the same time Israel is conducting discussions with the PA about the West Bank.
As for building moratoriums in the territories, he claimed that his government was committed to dismantling illegal settlements no matter the cost to them politically. Here he pointed to the unpopular and hotly contested dismantling of Amona in February 2006. 10,000 Israeli Police, Border Police, and soldiers faced 4,000 Israeli protesters resulting in violent clashes between the two sides. At this point someone called out from the audience that settlers have since returned regularly to this site with the hopes of reestablishing the settlement.
To this Mr. Olmert responded that Israel must choose its battles and decide whether it is more worth the national energy to fight day to day over this relatively insignificant site, or come to a national agreement on core issues. If Israel can reach an agreement with the Palestinians aside from places like this, these too will fall into place. Both the Americans and the Palestinians, he claimed, recognize this as well, and that Israel can move forward on granting the important symbols of national sovereignty that the PA is so eager to obtain at the same time that it quietly managing these other issues.
Mr. Olmert closed with an acknowledgment that while the Palestinian leadership and many ordinary Palestinians do not want to share “Eretz Yisrael” with the Israelis, they have come to the understanding that this is the political reality. What should then be on the national agenda is a peace proposal, and it is admirable that the current government is willing to take on talks, even when it is difficult for them. He hopes that an agreement will be reached and the details will follow.
Throughout Mr. Olmert’s speech, three themes were most dominant, that of international legitimacy, demography, Jewish history, and security. His sense of urgency over the concession of territory rested on a foundation of demographic pessimism and hopes for greater international legitimacy. Yet in the current environment where few Israelis believe that anything the state offers to the Palestinians will change the international world view of Israel, it seems questionable at best that this could motivate popular Israeli concessions. As for the demographic argument, I sincerely hope that I will be able to speak with Mr. Olmert about how influential this element is in his belief that an agreement is urgent and how the absence of such a fear might affect his willingness to concede territory.
While international legitimacy and demography propelled his territorial withdrawal argument forward, they were tempered by concerns for security and Jewish historical claims. It is clear that Mr. Olmert continues to believe that a Palestinian state must concede significant ground and de facto control even if they are formally sovereign over most of the West Bank. These may be concessions to which a weak PA can agree in the interim, but the long term may be another story altogether.
While asserting repeatedly that he recognizes the value of Jewish history in the Land of Israel, it is certainly notable that Mr. Olmert claimed that the Holy Basin should be under the stewardship of an international trust. This suggests a great readiness to concede a critical sticking point in the conflict to the other side. Yet one might also say that Palestinian rejection of even this offer indicates that the offer was as much strategic as it may have been earnest. Indeed, if the Palestinians cannot agree to share a place of such importance for both sides, how serious can they be about (or how capable are they of delivering) peace? The recent fractious meeting between Deputy FM Daniel Ayalon and Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad in which the latter stormed out objecting to the language of “two states for two peoples,’ rather than just ‘two states” may underscore this point directly.
For its part, the Geneva Initiative has highlighted on its website the key similarities between what Mr. Olmert said he offered to the PA and what the Geneva Agreement itself suggests must be the basis for an agreement. This underscores two points. First: the mission of the initiative itself, to push for an agreement no matter under whose banner and to whose credit. Second: to demonstrate that there are parameters to which both sides can agree in the implementation of a final resolution to the conflict. The extent to which both sides can actually agree to such parameters given the history of mutual rejections expressed in Olmert’s own speech give a significant basis for skepticism. Yet one may derive some hope from the fact that these discussions are occurring at all.