Monday, 12 November 2012

A secret Palestinian peace deal

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas created something of a stir recently by declaring in a TV interview that he had given up the idea of returning to his home town Safed. He also said, quite unequivocally, “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts are Israel.”

His remarks were treated with the usual scepticism by opponents of the two-state solution. But he had been equally clear when, in October, he met with representatives from the three leading Israeli political parties - Kadima, Labour and Likud − who support the Geneva Initiative.

“I could have made peace with Olmert,” Abbas is reported to have said “We reached agreement on all the core issues. I’m sure that if negotiations had continued, within two months we would have reached an agreement.”

He was referring to the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, initiated amid high hopes in Annapolis on 27 November 2007. And what he probably had in mind was the fact that those talks spawned not one, but two potential peace deals, before they finally collapsed in December 2008, in the wake of Israel's strike against the Hamas régime in the Gaza Strip.

One of the deals was the well-publicised offer from Ehud Olmert, made in the dying days of his premiership. The other – little referred to in the media, but revealed in an interview in April 2009 by chief PA negotiator, Saeb Erekat – was a far-reaching, written peace proposal submitted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Israeli government during the final days of the Bush administration. In his interview. Erekat disclosed that he made a secret trip to Washington on 18 December 2008 in order to present a copy of the document to President George W Bush.

Parallelling each other in recriminations, Abbas claims that he asked Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, to reply to this secret proposal in writing, but Olmert failed to do so. Olmert makes precisely the same charge against Abbas. In an interview in November 2009 he said that he showed Abbas a map embodying the full offer he had made for territorial compromise on both sides. Abbas wanted to take the map away. Olmert agreed, so long as they both signed it. It was from Olmert's point of view, a final offer, not a basis for future negotiation. But Abbas could not commit. Instead, he said he would come with experts the next day.

"But," said Olmert, "the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said: ‘we forgot we are going to Amman today, let's make it next week.’ I never saw him again."

The details of Olmert's final offer are well known. The territorial solution would start from the situation obtaining on the ground just prior to the Six Day War, but modifications on both sides would allow Israel to keep the biggest Jewish settlement blocks, including some suburbs of Jerusalem. This would have involved Israel claiming about 6.4 % of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. In return there would be a swap of land to the Palestinians from Israel as it existed before 1967.

"I showed Abu Mazen how this would work to maintain the contiguity of the Palestinian state," said Olmert "I also proposed a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. It would have been a tunnel fully controlled by the Palestinians but not under Palestinian sovereignty, otherwise it would have cut the state of Israel in two."

Olmert's solution for Jerusalem was for the city to be shared – Jewish neighbourhoods to be under Jewish sovereignty, Arab neighbourhoods under Palestinian sovereignty so that they could be the capital of a Palestinian state. As for the sites within the old city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, they would be jointly administered by five nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian state, Israel and the United States.

The Palestinian right of return would be resolved by Israel accepting an agreed number of Palestinians − 1,000 a year for five years was suggested. “In addition,” said Olmert, “we talked about creating an international fund that would compensate Palestinians for their suffering."

For his part, Saeb Erekat, speaking of the proposal submitted by Abbas, said that it dealt with all the core issues of the conflict, including Jerusalem and borders. Given the extent and depth of the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas during 2008, the two plans could not have been that far apart. And indeed, in his interview, Erekat claimed that it was the "most advanced offer" ever made by Palestinians, echoing Olmert's similar claim from the Israeli side.

“There was a proposal of Mr Olmert.” said Erekat. “There was a proposal from President Abbas. I went to the US secretly and handed over what we proposed in writing. History will show that President Abbas is a man of courage and commitment. We no longer need negotiations. We need decisions.”

His implication is clear. The two parties had been within a whisker of reaching an historic agreement. The spade work has in fact been done. Why reinvent the wheel?

One good reason might be that much water has flowed under the bridge since 2008, and that the Middle East has become a very different place. If actually resurrected and put to their respective constituencies, would either proposal now stand up to democratic scrutiny?

So yes, the bare bones of a final agreement are probably in place. The trick would lie in putting flesh on the bones and then, trusting the outcome is no Frankenstein's monster, breathing life into it.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 12 November 2012:

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