Diplomacy

EXCLUSIVE : Olmert: ‘I am still waiting for Abbas to call’

“I am still waiting for a phone call from him,” former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tells TheTower.org in an exclusive interview.

Revealing never before heard details of talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert was referring to the proposal for a peace agreement that he presented to Abbas in the afternoon hours of a Tuesday, September 16, 2008 meeting in the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

“At the end of the meeting” Olmert recalled this week, “we called Saeb Erekat [chief negotiator for PLO] and Shalom [Shalom Turjeman, Olmert's diplomatic adviser]. We asked them to meet the following day, Wednesday, together with map experts, in order to arrive at a final formula for the border between Palestine and Israel.”

But that Wednesday, Erekat called Turjeman and said they could not meet to finalize the peace deal because they “had forgotten that Abbas had to go to Amman!” Erekat said they would meet the following week. “I’ve been waiting ever since,” Olmert said with a smile.

Partial elements of Olmert’s proposal to Abbas have been published over the years in one form or another, some reports more accurate than others, but almost always through leaks from close confidants or anonymous sources. For the first time, Olmert himself is revealing the full details of the proposal.

The Details Behind the Peace the Palestinians Rebuffed, The History That Was Never Made

In the evening hours soon after the conclusion of the dramatic September 16th meeting between Olmert and Abbas, the Palestinian delegation returned to Ramallah. Although it was relatively late, Abbas summoned his closest advisers and the heads of the PLO, who understood the magnitude of the moment, and hurried to his office at the Mukataa, the Palestinian presidential compound.

Less than an hour earlier, Olmert had presented Abbas with the details of his sweeping peace offer and agreement between the two peoples, an unprecedented proposal from Israel’s perspective, the likes of which had never been, and likely will never again be, placed before a Palestinian leader.

Among the historic concessions, Olmert offered an unprecedented compromise over the Holy Basin, which includes the Temple Mount, the holiest place in Judaism. He proposed that in the context of a permanent peace agreement, a special committee with representatives from five countries – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, the United States, and Israel – would administer the critical area.

As his advisors gathered around him, Abbas told them that the Israeli Prime Minister had presented him not only the details of the agreement but also a large map, which laid out the borders of the future Palestinian state.

Abbas silenced those present so that he could concentrate. He wanted to sketch out Olmert’s map from memory. The Israeli Prime Minister had told him that as long as Abu Mazen did not sign his initials to the map and endorse it, Olmert would not hand over a copy. Abu Mazen took a piece of letterhead of the Presidential Office and drew on it the borders of the Palestinian state as he remembered them.

Abbas marked the settlement blocks that Israel would retain: The Ariel bloc, the Jerusalem-Maaleh Adumim bloc (including E1), and Gush Etzion. A total of 6.3% of the West Bank. Then Abbas also drew the territories that Israel proposed to offer in their place: In the area of Afula-Tirat Zvi, in the Lachish area, the area close to Har Adar, and in the Judean desert and the Gaza envelope. A total of 5.8% of the West Bank. Abu Mazen wrote on the left side of the letterhead the numbers as he incorrectly remembered them (6.8% and 5.5%), and on the back he wrote the rest of the details of the proposal: Safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank via a tunnel, the pentilateral committee to administer the Holy Basin, the removal of the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley and the absorption of 5,000 Palestinian refugees, 1,000 each year over five years, inside the Green Line.

Abbas’ hand-drawn map, sketched on the stationery of the Palestinian Office of the President and obtained by TheTower.org in the course of this investigative report about the clandestine negotiation between Olmert and Abbas, was published here yesterday exclusively. The two men met 36 times, mostly in Jerusalem and once in Jericho, and arrived at a formula that was to be the basis for a lasting agreement between the two parties. But in the end, peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians were not signed, despite the far-reaching proposal made by Olmert. As an official matter, the Palestinian Authority has not responded.

“Mr. President”

In October 2006, Shalom Turjeman and Yoram Turbovitch – Olmert’s point men on these issues – met in Washington D.C. with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Steven Hadley. There they heard for the first time that the White House was interested in jump-starting the peace process. Until then, there had been steady pessimism in Washington and Jerusalem about the possibility of negotiations. When the Israeli team returned to Jerusalem, they began to lay the groundwork for a meeting between Abbas and Olmert.

“Every time, he would postpone our meeting,” Olmert said of Abbas. “In the end, I got fed up. He tried to push off the meeting that had been set for Saturday night, December 23, 2006, he called me up and said he had to travel to Gaza. I told him, ‘If you have decided to offend me, I can understand that. But why offend my wife? She has been cooking for 24 hours straight in your honor, and what do I tell her now?’ He said, ‘Really? I will not offend your wife. If that is the case, then I will come.

“I made a point of having Turjeman and Turbovitch go out to receive him at the Bitunya checkpoint. There he found a motorcade waiting for him, including security cars with police lights. When he got to the house in Jerusalem he saw two flags flying over the Prime MInister’s residence: Israel and Palestine. Also inside the house, and on the conference table. I made him feel like an equal partner. I called him “Mr. President.” We spoke about freeing prisoners. He asked for 500-600. I said, ‘Why don’t you ask for more?’ He asked for the taxes owed the PA – 50 million [shekels] I said not a chance. He grumbled about it but then I surprised him and said, ‘you will get 100 million – it’s Palestinian money. The days when you have to ask for what is rightfully yours are over.’ When he left, he told his people, ‘A new era as begun– he wants to talk to us.’”

The first meeting in late 2006 launched a model for talks between the two leaders: every so often, usually every two week, the two would meet and after some opening remarks and some food, they would go off to the side and speak one-on-one about the issues regarding final status. Olmert described this week in his office in Tel Aviv almost nostalgically. Abbas would smoke while they were speaking of peace, and at the end of their conversation, they would call  Erekat and Turjeman into to the room to  take down the minutes of the meeting.

In November 2007 the Annapolis Conference was convened. It was meant primarily to create an international umbrella for a process that had begun almost a year before, but it also presented certain difficulties. Abbas appointed Ahmed Q’rei (Abu Allah) as the Palestinian chief negotiator, and Olmert picked then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to be the chief negotiator for the Israeli side. “He claimed that Abu Allah had a lot of political power, so he needed him,” Olmert says. But someone close to the former prime minister says that Abu Allah’s appointment, like Livni’s, introduced no small degree of political complexity into the negotiations, and as a result, slowed them down.

The talks between the two continued to accelerate. A special committee headed by Gen. Jim Jones, who was then the Administration’s special envoy for security to the Middle East, reached understandings with regard to the security arrangements after the creation of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized and could not enter into military alliances; Israel would command the electromagnetic and air space, and also be responsible for border crossings. In parallel, President George Bush visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority, twice in less than half a year. During those months, Olmert put together the proposal that he would finally present to Abbas.

But first, he wanted Rice and Bush’s blessing.

“The final outline of my proposal,” Olmert recalls, “was familiar to Abu Mazen already in May, more or less. On May 3, 2008, I met with Condoleezza Rice in the Prime Minister’s residence, and she [wrote] about it in her book. I described for her my talks with Abu Mazen and what the proposed agreement would look like: borders based on 1967 with land swaps, including the division of Jerusalem into Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, isolating the Holy Basin which would be transferred to the administration of the five states, and a solution to the refugee problem along the lines of the Arab peace initiative.”

“I agreed to absorb into Israel up to 5,000 Palestinian refugees over five years. Why 5,000? It may sound kind of strange, but during the talks between Rice and Abu Mazen he said that he needed the settlement of tens of thousands of refugees inside Israel, and that Ehud Barak had been ready to take in 100,000. She told him that he could get the same number of people as could fit inside the Mukataa at any given moment. We estimated that number to be about 5,000. So that’s how I came up with the number. I’m telling you, if Abu Mazen had been ready to sign on an agreement that would require our absorbing 10,000-15,000 over five years, I would have agreed. It was after all about the number of African illegals who were sneaking across the border every year back then. But all of it, of course, on condition that they would sign an agreement for an ‘end of conflict and end of demands,’ so there would no longer be a ‘right of return.’”

“She gave him my proposal that he appoint a representative on whom he relied completely who would formulate the peace agreement. I had already turned to someone like that; someone with international standing. But Abbas said he preferred that the talks be carried out directly with him. She was concerned about the differences in our English– since mine was much more fluent then Abu Mazen’s– but I promised her that I wouldn’t take advantage of it, and she believed me. “

“When we talked about the subject of borders, Abbas reiterated that he wanted land swaps of 1.9% only, or the 1967 borders. I told him that the 1967 borders did not include a passage between Gaza and the West Bank, and if they want to make that connection and the necessary adjustments of the map, then it should be done in a smart way.”

People close to Olmert explain that he arrived at his proposal regarding borders only after a painstaking investigation of the conditions on the ground. It would have been impossible, they say, for Israel to retain only the cities in the large settlement blocs without also including the roads leading to them and between them. From there came Olmert’s position on the area known as E-1, the corridor that connects municipal Jerusalem with its large bedroom community of Maaleh Adumim. E-1 has been envisioned as Israeli under every single peace proposal dating back to Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, the legendary General and leader of the Labor Party who initiated peace talks with the Palestinians in the early 1990s. The same was reserved for Israel under the frameworks of the Camp David and Taba talks held under Ehud Barak with the support of President Bill Clinton. It was even destined to be Israeli territory under the informal Geneva Accords organized by Yossi Beilin, considered a champion of the left.

According to Olmert, he explained to Abbas during their talks that Israel could not agree to any solution to the refugee problem according to UN Resolution 194, which in his view had created the Palestinian’s ‘claim of return’ myth. “But I said to him, first we will set up a special fund for compensation to the refugees, second, we will accept the road map, which includes in it the Arab peace initiative which also refers to resolution 194 with respect to a solution for the refugee problem. That way you too can claim that Israel accepted the basis of the Arab peace initiative including Resolution 194.”

“In the last meeting I brought a big map, like the size of this whole table,” recalls Olmert. “With colors for all the regions that go over to us and the reverse. We would receive 6.3%, they would get 5.8%, but they also get a safe passage in a tunnel between Gaza and the West Bank that was the equivalent in territory of the remaining half percent. Territories that were considered no-man’s-land before 1967 would be divided 50-50. Ariel would stay with us, and a network of tunnels would go under the Trans Samaria Highway to ease the passage of Palestinians in that area. Similarly for the areas of A-Zaim and Hizmeh, since I was insisting on E-1. There would be a tunnel that would enable Palestinians to have quick passage between Bethlehem and Ramallah, despite our control over the territory, and so their territorial contiguity would not be impaired.”

“At the same time, I gave Abbas territories in the Beit Sh’ean Valley, next to Tirat Zvi, not far from Afula, in the area of Lachish, in the area of Katna (next to Har Adar), the northern Judean desert and the area around the Gaza Strip. I completely gave up on having an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. That was because I could protect the line of the Jordan River through an international military force on the other side of the Jordan RIver. There was no opposition on the Palestinian side to our having a presence in warning stations along the mountain range.”

TheTower.org: But you essentially gave up on Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount?

Olmert: “Correct, I proposed a compromise on sovereignty over the Temple Mount. There would be no sovereignty for anyone else. There would be the joint administration of the five states.”

TheTower.org: Where did this idea come from?
Olmert: ”It came from my head. I was thinking about it day and night. I grew up among the Beitar-ist movement [cultivating the land and Israeli communities]. It was a movement that didn’t see settlements as a means for achieving political ends. Many of the ‘Likud Princes’ think as I do, and their path is like mine. Salai and Dan Meridor for example.”

TheTower.org: So what did Abu Mazen say about that proposal? Did he accept your ideas?
Olmert: ”[In the meeting] he didn’t say he opposed my idea. It was clear to me that he agreed. He said to me, ‘Listen, it makes a very serious impression.’ I said to him, ‘Come on, let’s initial the map. In a day or two we’ll fly to the U.S. [for the annual UN General Assembly meetings which were taking place the following week] and convene the U.N. Security Council and tell them that it’s a peace deal between us. The whole Security Council will approve it, and then we will go the General Assembly and ask for a vote. About 190 out of the 193 states will vote for it, maybe except for Iran and Syria. After that we’ll convene a joint session of Congress and we’ll appear everywhere together. We’ll gather a summit of all the world’s leaders at the connecting point of the Holy Basin. They will all come.’ He said to me again, ‘It’s serious, it’s serious, but I have to be sure. I want the map experts from both sides to sit together because I’m not an expert. We called over Turjeman and Saeb, I said to Shalom that he should call Danny Tirza, our map expert, so they should sit together the next day.”

The History That Was Never Made, and The Unbelievable Excuses That Killed It

But the next morning came the fateful call from Abbas’ top aide, Saab Erekat, saying there would be no meeting to finalize the peace deal because the Palestinians “had forgotten that Abbas had to go to Amman,” Olmert recalled. Erekat said they would meet the following week. “I’ve been waiting ever since.”

Asked this week to explain why Abbas would not have accepted such a sweeping offer, a senior Palestinian official told TheTower.org that Olmert’s proposal was not acceptable to Abbas, who has been quoted elsewhere saying, “the gaps were wide.”

“There were internal Palestinian discussions regarding the proposal. These were serious issues. The natural thing was that Abu Mazen would not sign immediately and would behave responsibly and go back and consult with the PLO leadership.”

TheTower.org: But until this very day, you still haven’t given him an answer? Why?
Palestinian Official: ”There was the Gaza operation that stopped everything.”

TheTower.org: But between the last meeting and the Gaza Operation there were three months. Why didn’t you answer Olmert during that period?

The official preferred to avoid answering that question. Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat confirms that these were the details of the proposal Olmert offered as they were shown to the Palestinian side. “But Olmert’s memory concerning the last meeting has been rather foggy,” he insisted. ”We too showed Olmert a map that spoke of handing over 1.9% only of the West Bank to Israeli sovereignty.

“I know all of their arguments,” said Olmert. “They say that Abu Mazen agreed with Bush that Erekat would meet with Turjeman in early January in Washington, but that was a few days before Bush left the White House and we received no such invitation. They claim that it was because I was finished politically, so he hesitated. But that is an excuse after the fact. They [the Palestinians] were very worried. Abu Mazen is not a big hero. They were afraid. Erekat was worried. In the end they thought that maybe after the American elections they would get more from President Obama.”