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The Path to Almost-Peace – Part 1

“This is the best offer we’ve ever gotten from Israel and the best we’ll ever get.” That’s how Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas described the peace offer Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made him in the fall of 2008.

Olmert’s offer had indeed been far-reaching on all the final-status issues: refugees, Jerusalem and most of all, borders. Palestinian officials have recently hinted that Abbas had been amenable to Olmert’s offer at the time, and remains so even today.

And yet the well-worn expression that Israelis and Palestinians were “never closer to a deal” is only partially true. Abbas, of course, did not accept Olmert’s proposal, and his failure to do so has become a tool for Israel’s political right to hammer the Palestinians. And yet, those accusations notwithstanding, Abbas’s decision did not stem from a stubborn refusal to end the conflict but to other political and diplomatic considerations.

Olmert’s offer will likely one day become the basis for a final-status agreement, should that day ever come. Yet the plan has received scant media coverage in the Israeli and Palestinian media, perhaps because of both peoples’ general despair over the remaining prospects for peace.

But what do we actually know about Olmert’s proposition and why Abbas declined it? How did Olmert, once a Likud prince, come around to offering such a generous outline to the Palestinians, and what was America’s role in it all? In this series of two articles, I’ll try to answer those questions.

Democracy, Palestine-style

Upon taking office, long before making any peace offer, Olmert had to deal with a situation he inherited from his predecessor Ariel Sharon: Palestinian elections.

Sharon had suffered a stroke on January 4, 2006, and the date set for elections (after two postponements) was exactly three weeks after that. The Sharon-led government had decided a few months prior not to intervene in the Palestinian ballots despite warnings from Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin that their results would, in the best case, strengthen Hamas and in the worst, lead to its outright victory.

Diskin – who knew a thing or two about the Palestinian arena from his three decades working in the West Bank ­– was the most vocally opposed to elections of all the heads of Israel’s security services. In September 2005, shortly before Sharon was to travel to the U.N. General Assembly – to bask in his new status as peacemaker for having disengaged from Gaza – Diskin asked the premier to try to convince the Americans to give up the dream of Palestinian democracy given elections’ likelihood to undermine Abbas.

Diskin, it seems, had met with a number of American officials visiting Israel at that time (one was a young Illinois senator named Barack Obama) to brief them on the situation in the territories. The PA, he would tell them, was crumbling, and Fatah was being dramatically weakened in the West Bank and Gaza as its relative electoral “stars” were all dead, in jail, or tied to corruption scandals.

Many Hamas leaders were also dead or in jail, but unlike their Fatah counterparts, were hardly ever suspected of corruption. Hamas’s stock had long been on the rise, and got an extra boost from the Gaza disengagement. As elections got closer, polls showed support for Hamas steadily rising at the expense of Fatah. And yet the surveys still showed Fatah taking the elections by a wide, if diminished margin – Hamas was projected to only take about a third of all ballots.

The White House and State Department had made a fatal error: They believed the polls. Washington was convinced Fatah would win, and that including Hamas as the parliamentary opposition would moderate it – even though the two-decade precedent of Hezbollah in Lebanon might suggest otherwise.

In any event, President George W. Bush had been pressuring Sharon to get on board for the vote, and Sharon – after visiting with the president stateside – ultimately gave in. At Abbas’s insistence, Sharon would even let East Jerusalemites cast their ballots (though there, elections were to be held at post office branches rather than more political government offices, lest Israel give the impression it had ceded control of the area to the Palestinians).

Olmert, left with no alternative even if he had wanted one, didn’t try to reverse Sharon’s decision. “Our understanding at the time,” an official in the Sharon-Olmert administration said, “was that the only way to avoid elections was to send in troops to stop the balloting. But international diplomatic implications of such a move would have been fatal for us.”

A few weeks before the vote, ever more PA officials were trying to persuade the Israeli government to cancel it. The officials beseeched Abbas as well, but in closed-door meetings at PA headquarters in Ramallah, Abbas said he simply couldn’t.

“Hamas will ignite Gaza if I cancel the elections without a good reason,” he said. The journalist Shlomi Eldar wrote in his book “Getting to Know Hamas” that Mohammed Dahlan, at the time Fatah’s strongman in Gaza, suggested that Israel announce it would not allow PA elections in East Jerusalem, thereby giving the Palestinians a pretext to cancel their involvement as well.

It was all to no avail. On a January 2 interview to Al Jazeera, Abbas said, “We all agree Jerusalem has to be included in the elections. If it isn’t, all of the Palestinian factions will boycott the vote.” Ironically, Hamas felt obligated to oppose its rival’s position: Its own strongman Mahmoud Al-Zahar said Hamas intended to go ahead with elections, with Jerusalem or without.

Two weeks ahead of the vote, a request came into Sharon’s office from Abbas himself. The head of the PA negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, was sent for a special meeting with Sharon’s team, during which he essentially asked Israel to save his boss from an electoral unseating. Erekat also informed his hosts that the PA was planning to condemn Israel for barring East Jerusalemites from the vote, and that a wave of denunciations, Arab and otherwise, would probably follow too. In any case, therein lay the plan for both the PA and Israel to ensure Fatah stays in power.

The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, was making similar requests to Washington. An Abbas associate met with a staffer of then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at Ramallah’s Darna restaurant with a simple message: This whole election business needs to be dropped, lest Hamas prevail. The American diplomat’s response was haughty – Washington, she said, had clear data pointing to a Fatah victory.

The PA emissary persisted. Fatah was fractured (its jailed terrorist leader Marwan Barghouti was still supposed to run as well), and Hamas was basking in the putative victory of having effected the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. “Fatah’s image is in bad shape, and our people are jostling against one another. I repeat: We’re in bad shape.”

Abbas had instructed his staffer to ask Rice to let elections be deferred for six months after Israel’s fake announcement of preventing voting in East Jerusalem. Washington wasn’t biting. (Abbas’s office declined to comment for this article.)

Dov Weissglass, chief of staff under Sharon and Olmert, told me the Palestinians had indeed asked Israel to help them postpone elections, “and for Israel to initially prevent letting East Jerusalemites vote in them, but then to relent. I spoke about this with Sharon and he had agreed in principle to the move in order to help Abbas and the PA. Yes, we saw these elections as a threat. And still, given the U.S. pressure on Abbas, the idea was dropped.”

A few days after Rice’s meeting with the PA emissary, her assistant David Welch called Abbas and told him bluntly: “If you cancel the elections, you can forget our phone numbers.”

The threat worked, and that same day Abbas held a press conference in Ramallah to say the exercise in democracy would be held as planned. By January 26 the Americans understood their mistake: Hamas had taken 75 percent of parliamentary seats and Fatah just 44.

Hamas’s victory caused shock not only in Jerusalem –Washington and Brussels were also at a loss for words. In April, Olmert went to the U.S. capital for his first meeting with President Bush since becoming prime minister, and showed him a plan for extending Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza to include the West Bank as well. Bush gave him the green light, but warned: “If there’s an opportunity for negotiations, don’t reject it just because you’ve started going in a different direction.”

Soon after, however, came Gilad Shalit’s capture, which undermined Abbas’s standing in favor of Hamas. Meanwhile Olmert had found himself in the Second Lebanon War, which severely undermined his own standing.

A figure close to Olmert told me the prime minister understood after that war that withdrawing from the West Bank was now less than a top priority.

In October, Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley met with close Olmert colleagues Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turjeman and asked them to “think of another direction.” They did so, and decided to shoot for direct Olmert-Abbas meetings to map out the way forward.

Those meetings began in December of that year. Olmert, one of his staffers said, “decided to show Abbas that this time the Israeli government was more serious than ever.”

To be continued…

[Photo: State Department / Wiki Commons]