News / Middle East

Olmert's Peace Plan: Now or Never?

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, Oct. 3, 2007.
FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, Oct. 3, 2007.
Cecily Hilleary
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says Israel is more secure now than it has ever been and the time has come to make peace with the Palestinians. But Israelis and Palestinians are still far apart on what a peace accord would look like, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may have a hard time getting peace talks started, much less much less reaching a successful conclusion.
Olmert was in Washington recently, promoting a peace plan he offered the Palestinians more than four years ago. At the time, Olmert’s plan was considered unprecedented, largely because it called for making Jerusalem the shared capital of two nations – Israel and a sovereign Palestine mainly occupying what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Equally controversial, it called for international control over Jerusalem’s Old City, with its places holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And additionally, it would have allowed up to 5,000 Palestinians to return to their homeland in what is now Israel.
The plan did not gain a lot of momentum inside Israel, But Olmert told a Wilson Center audience  in Washington that it failed because Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas held back, thinking he could get an even better deal under President Barack Obama.
 Still Olmert thinks it’s time to put his 2008 proposals back on the table.

“Israel never safer…”

“Today, the traditional enemies of Israel are not potential players in any possible attack that could jeopardize Israel,” Olmert said.
Whether or not Bashar al-Assad stays in power in neighboring Damascus, Olmert says he believes that at least for the foreseeable future, Syria will not be able to pose any strategic challenge to Israel. He says Israel’s relationship with Egypt may be “in transition” since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Cairo, but that the two countries enjoy a formal peace agreement, and that the Morsi government has nothing to gain by tearing it up.
“The responsibility for feeding 80 million people every day is far more important than entering into adventures that might end up with a terrible disaster for your own people and your own country,” Olmert said. 

But while Olmert makes the case for an immediate resumption of peace talks, and as Secretary Kerry is undertaking his fifth visit to the Middle East, there is little indication that the parties themselves are anxious to begin negotiations any time soon.

Israel holding out

Gil HoffmanGil Hoffman
Gil Hoffman
Gil Hoffman
Gil Hoffman, chief political analyst for The Jerusalem Post, says it is doubtful that Israel is ready to re-offer anything like the Olmert plan.   

“I don’t think there’s an appetite among the people of Israel for it,” Hoffman said and he cited a recent Post public opinion poll to back his case.  “The numbers were two-thirds in favor of a two-state solution, but in dividing Jerusalem, they were against. 

“And Olmert was going to do more than divide Jerusalem,” he continued. “He was going to internationalize the old city.  He was going to do things that, chances are, 80-90 percent of Israelis would be against.”

“Olmert offered the plan on September 16, 2008, and there hasn’t been a peace process since that day – in part because of mistakes made in Washington, in part because of mistakes made in Ramallah, and in part because of assumptions about the administration in Jerusalem," Hoffman said. "And so now, Kerry is trying very hard, and [National Security Advisor] Susan Rice is a big believer in there being a peace process — as everyone else.  A lot depends on whether Abbas is going to come back to the table.”

Abbas says he is ready to return to negotiation as soon as possible to reach agreement with Israel “on the basis of a two-state solution on the 1967 borders” with Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

Hoffman disagrees with Olmert’s assessment that in postponing peacemaking, Israel risks having to deal with a tougher Palestinian leadership — possibly the Gaza-based Hamas movement.
“The popularity of Hamas is down to 18 percent in Gaza, according to a poll that was in the Economist not too long ago,” Hoffman said.

Palestinians holding out

Ori NirOri Nir
Ori Nir
Ori Nir
Ori Nir is a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. And while he agrees that a hardline Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to offer a plan as generous as Olmert’s, that could change in the future. 

“One scenario, for example, is Yair Lapid, who’s standing in the sidelines waiting for his turn to run for prime minister,” Nir said.  “He has said that he sees himself as a future candidate for premiership and that he is going to challenge — he actually said that — that he’s going to challenge Netanyahu.”

But hasn’t Lapid said he would never agree to divide Jerusalem? 

Yes, says Nir.  But that kind of “sloganeering” could change.  “Because you may remember when Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem…, his mantra was, ‘a unified Jerusalem forever and ever,’” said Nir.  “But when the time came to look the reality in the eyes and look at what a future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would entail, he understood that Jerusalem would have to be divided.”

That said, Nir believes that the Palestinians should not wait another four years before returning to negotiations. 

“For Abbas — to say to himself, ‘I should wait because I may get a better deal in the future’ would be a huge gamble, because while there may be a different leadership, maybe a leadership that is more prone to compromise in the future, he may end up facing a situation where that leader that he’s hoping for cannot maneuver anymore because the status quo has become irreversible,” Nir said.

Unlike Hoffman, Nir believes the Palestinians are in the process of becoming more radical, and this creates an urgent need for talks sooner. 

“The kind of leadership that you have there [on the Palestinian side] today, which is still a product of the Oslo era…committed to nonviolence and to peace, may, because of the status quo, crumble, collapse and become totally irrelevant to Palestinian politics, and what you will end up with is the radicals, and you really, really won’t have a partner there,” Nir said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. secretary of state is said to be frustrated with both sidesAbbas says that if Kerry cannot come up with a clear offer from Israel by June 20, he may dismantle the Palestinian Authority.  Meanwhile, Israel says it will approve four new West Bank settlements and has refused Kerry’s request to release Palestinian prisoners or to offer any other concessions ahead of talks.

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