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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Olmert’s peace proposal

Key Points

  • Haaretz newspaper last week published details of a map, which the paper claims was presented by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in September 2008, as a proposal for final status borders.
  • Olmert’s office have described this map as inaccurate, but according to Olmert’s own account, he presented Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas with a blueprint for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Olmert’s recent statements concerning his position on final status issues such as refugees and Jerusalem confirm that the former prime minister was prepared for very significant concessions in order to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
  • The Haaretz map in its main particulars resembles most closely the ‘Clinton proposals’ as suggested by US President Bill Clinton in December 2000, in the closing stages of the attempt in that year to reach a final status accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has said that the map was one of a series presented, as part of an ongoing process of negotiation. Abbas confirmed that the Palestinian side declined to begin a phase of final discussions intended to lead to an agreement because of the commencement of Operation Cast Lead.

Introduction

Last week, Haaretz newspaper published details of a map, which the paper contended was presented by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in September, 2008. The paper claimed that the map, based on unnamed sources, reflects proposals which were part of the negotiations which commenced following the Annapolis conference in 2007. It should be stressed that Olmert’s office has claimed that the map published in Haaretz contained a ‘not inconsiderable number of inaccuracies,’ by comparison with the actual map presented to the Palestinian Authority.

A statement from Olmert’s office said that a map was presented to the PA Chairman on September 16, 2008, and was based on the conversations between Olmert and Abbas. The map was intended to ‘solve the problem of the borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state.’ Olmert’s office made clear that the map was intended to be accepted as the basis for a final status agreement, and did want it to be used by the Palestinians as an ‘opening position’ for future negotiations. Since the Palestinian Authority Chairman did not, according to Olmert’s statement ‘give his consent to a final and complete agreement,’ the map was not officially issued as a proposal of the State of Israel.

In a recent interview on the BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’ program, Olmert entered into some detail concerning the concessions he was willing to grant the Palestinians in order to solve the conflict. Olmert spoke of the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in the Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem and its borders based on those of 1967. He also mentioned his willingness to accept a token number of Palestinian refugees within the borders of Israel.

The Olmert proposal

According to the map published by Ha’aretz, the Palestinian Authority would be ceded the entirety of the Gaza Strip. Israel would annex 6.3% of the area of the West Bank, a move which would enable around 75% of the population of Jewish West Bank settlements to remain in their homes. The overall Jewish population of the West Bank excluding east Jerusalem is just over 300,000. The proposal would therefore require between 75,000 and 80,000 people to leave their homes.

In return for this, land would be transferred to the Palestinians equivalent to 5.8% of the area of the West Bank. In addition, a ‘safe passage’ route linking Hebron in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be established. The proposal as outlined in Haaretz does not include future arrangements in Jerusalem, and does not relate to broader issues such as the refugee issue.

The map as outlined would see the main settlements blocs of Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem, Maaleh Adumim to Jerusalem’s east, and the Ariel Bloc adjoining the Green Line annexed to Israel. In terms of which settlements would be retained by Israel, the map corresponds largely to the route of the Security Barrier.

A considerable number of settlements would be evacuated, however, according to the map. These would include many of the central ‘flagships’ of the West Bank settlement movement, such as the communities in Hebron, Kiryat Arba adjoining Hebron, and Elon Moreh and Ofra. These latter two were the first settlements to be established in the 1970s in the northern West Bank, outside of the framework of the ‘Allon Plan‘ – that is, in areas of high Arab population whose retention was not deemed strategically vital for Israel.

In addition to these well known communities, the plan would require the dismantling of dozens of settlements in the Jordan Valley, eastern Samaria and the Hebron region.

Regarding the land that would become part of a Palestinian state in return for the annexation of the settlement blocs, the map foresees the ceding of land to the PA in the Beit Shean valley to the north of the West Bank, the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem and the Lachish area immediately south of the West Bank. The Gaza Strip would also be slightly enlarged.

The significance of the map

The map published by Haaretz resembles most closely the ‘Clinton proposals’ as suggested by US President Bill Clinton in December 2000, in the closing stages of the attempt in that year to reach a final status accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The Clinton proposals did not include the issuing of a formal map, but a map reflecting the proposals was published by former US Chief Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross in his book ‘The Missing Peace’. (It should be noted that the veracity of the map drawn up by the former US chief negotiator is disputed by some analysts associated with the Palestinian side).

Observation of the map reflecting the Clinton proposals shows that the Olmert map includes the granting of a slightly larger amount of territory than did Clinton. The Olmert map also explicitly offers a link between the West Bank and Gaza.

But the two maps follow the same logic – which is to seek to draw in as large as possible a number of Jewish settlers behind the borders of Israel, while ensuring that the Palestinian state possesses territorial contiguity on the West Bank. Both maps also assume that the Palestinians will be compensated with land from pre-1967 Israel in return for the annexation of settlement blocs.

In an interview given to Haaretz, PA Chairman Abbas gave further details of the talks he held with Prime Minister Olmert. Abbas claimed that a series of maps were presented by both sides – implying that the map published in the paper constituted one proposal, in an ongoing process of negotiation. Abbas noted that the negotiations were not completed. He appears to accept Palestinian responsibility for this, in that he notes that the US and Israel intended that the final stage of negotiations would begin on January 3, 2009.

Abbas says, however, that the Palestinians declined to attend these talks, because ‘the situation did not allow it.’ The PA Chairman has referred to the fact that Operation Cast Lead began at the time to explain his reasons for not proceeding with the negotiation. It is also important to note that at the time in question, Olmert had already announced his intention to resign from the prime ministership, and new elections were in the offing.

As Abbas’s stated reasons for ending the negotiations suggest, it is also vital to note that at the time that the talks were taking place, the Palestinian Authority had lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas. The Palestinian Islamist movement would undoubtedly oppose any agreement signed on the basis of compromise, and it is not clear at that stage if the Palestinian Authority would have proved able to ‘deliver’ its own side of the bargain.

Conclusion

Whilst the accuracy of the map published by Haaretz is in question, placing it alongside Olmert’s statements to the media on these subjects makes it possible to gain a good sense of the former Prime Minister’s positions on the essential issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The map does not necessarily reflect current Israeli policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not endorsed it, and was unaware of it when it was issued. Nevertheless, the fact that Olmert and Abbas were at the stage of viewing maps of the possible future border is significant for a number of reasons.

It implies that the ideas formulated by President Clinton in December 2000 continue to offer a feasible, practical basis for the division of the land west of the Jordan River, and the establishment of two states in that area – Israel and Palestine. It also reflects that mainstream Israeli thinking on the solution to the conflict remains firmly on the basis of a two state solution.

The map and its fate are of course of far more than historical or academic interest. Informed sources suggest that much work is currently taking place behind the scenes to finalize ‘terms of reference’ acceptable to both sides which would enable the re-commencement of negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu has accepted a two state outcome to the conflict and is willing for negotiations on this basis. US Envoy George Mitchell is attempting to formulate a basis which will prove able to bring the Palestinians to agree to recommence negotiations. Mitchell has said he is keen in particular to address the issue of the future borders,

Should negotiations re-commence, a document similar to the Clinton proposals and to the Olmert map is likely at some stage to be placed on the table. The Palestinian side evaded a clear response to the Clinton parameters. They also failed to issue a clear response to the Olmert proposals and declined to continue negotiations. The success of the current process will depend in no small measure on the readiness of both sides to work constructively and make compromises on this difficult issue.

The map published by Haaretz can be viewed on their website here.

[i] Aluf Benn, “Exclusive: Olmert’s plan for peace with the Palestinians,” Haaretz, 20/12. http://www.haaretz.com
[ii]Ibid.
[iii]Steven Sackur, “Standing by the Olmert Plan,” BBC Online, 24 September 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk
[iv]Benn.
[v]”Introduction: the current debate over settlements,” Bicom research document citing IDF Civil Administration figures.. http://www.bicom.org.uk
[vi]Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: the inside story of the fight for Middle East peace, New York, 2004: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Page xvii.
[vii]Jack Khoury, “Abbas: Olmert offered PA land equaling 100% of West Bank,” Haaretz, 20 December 2009. http://www.haaretz.com