Photo: Ehud Olmert and Donald Rumsfeld, 2006
In her new memoir, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert making a secret peace offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September 2008.
Rice is not the first person to reveal this offer. The details of Olmert’s proposed plan were disclosed in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in December 2009. However, Rice’s book has given this episode a new life in the news media.
Rice wrote that Olmert would offer the Palestinians 94.2 percent of the West Bank with land swaps to account for Israel's retaining some settlements.
Under Olmert’s plan, Jerusalem would be divided, with “Jewish neighborhoods” being incorporated into Israel and “Palestinian neighborhoods” going to a Palestinian state.
In addition, Rice says, an international body, including representatives of Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and Europe would help administer religious sites in Jerusalem.
Also under Olmert’s plan, only 5,000 Palestinian refugees, of more than four million, would return to their homeland.
While Rice’s account of Olmert’s offer may sound dramatic, it is also misleading in important respects. Much of the media have reported Rice’s recollection of this episode as another “missed opportunity” for Middle East peace.
However, the particulars of Olmert’s reported plan and the conditions under which it was offered show neither generosity nor much chance of success. Here is why:
- When Rice writes that Israel would retain “Jewish neighborhoods” of Jerusalem, this means that large settlements in occupied East Jerusalem would have been annexed to Israel. According to the map of Olmert’s plan released by Ha’aretz, these included the massive settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, which all but bisects the West Bank.
- Other major settlements Olmert would have retained for Israel included Ariel and other major colonies in the northern West Bank, which would have denied a Palestinian state real territorial contiguity.
- According to Ha’aretz, much of the land Olmert reportedly offered Abbas in exchange for crucial areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank was carved out of the barren Judean Desert, south of the West Bank.
- Olmert reportedly offered to allow the return of only 5,000 Palestinian refugees, a tiny fraction of the 4.3 million who are registered with the UN. This issue alone would have made it nearly impossible for Abbas to gain support for the plan among the Palestinian people.
- According to Rice’s account, Olmert demanded that Abbas sign his map without consulting his own advisors and legal experts, and refused to allow Abbas to take a copy of the map to the Palestinian negotiators. It would have been unusual and irresponsible for Abbas to unilaterally sign an agreement in secret and without first consulting his team.
- The negotiations brokered by Rice, which began at the 2007 Annapolis conference, were not designed to produce a final peace agreement. Rather, these talks had the less ambitious goal of a “shelf agreement,” to be implemented at a later date.
- By the time Olmert made his offer, he had been under investigation for corruption for months and was fending off calls for his resignation. Olmert’s political weakness at the time casts into doubt his ability to conclude a peace agreement.