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The secret Palestinian peace offer


It is not generally known that the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, initiated amid high hopes in Annapolis on 27 November 2007, spawned two potential peace deals before the talks collapsed in December 2008 in the wake of Israel's strike against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

One of the deals was the well-publicized offer from Ehud Olmert, made in the dying days of his premiership. The other -- revealed in a TV interview only a few weeks ago 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.

This information appeared to come as a total surprise to the Israeli TV interviewer. But in fact Erekat had referred to it nearly a year before in a radio interview in April 2009. During the 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.

Paralleling each other in recriminations, Abbas claims that he had asked Israeli premier, Ehud Olmert, to reply to the proposal in writing, but Olmert had failed to do so. Olmert makes precisely the same charge against Abbas. He says 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. In more than 35 meetings - some of them discussions attended by officials on both sides, some private face-to-face encounters involving just the two men -- Olmert believed they had reached agreement on a plan, which he presented to Abbas in written form on 16 September 2008.

The territorial solution would start from the situation obtaining on the ground just prior to the Six Day War. Minor modifications on both sides would allow Israel to keep the biggest Jewish settlement blocks, including some suburbs of Jerusalem, but would certainly have entailed other settlers having to leave Palestinian territory and relocate to Israel. In total this would have involved Israel claiming about 6.4 per cent 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 in an interview in November 2009. "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.

Dealing with the issue of the Palestinian right of return, Olmert said: "we would agree on a humanitarian basis to accept a certain number every year for five years, on the basis that this would be the end of conflict and the end of claims. I said to him 1000 per year. I think the Americans were entirely with me. In addition, we talked about creating an international fund that would compensate Palestinians for their suffering."

What was never tested was the extent to which this package would have survived the democratic test of acceptability within Israel, let alone within the Israeli government which would have had to endorse it in the final analysis. The political situation in the final months of 2008 was that Olmert, who had resigned over corruption allegations on 21 September, was acting merely in a caretaker capacity until the new elections. He had, in a sense, nothing to lose -- which is perhaps why he was able to say: "what no previous Israeli leader has ever said: we should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in east Jerusalem and in the Golan Heights."

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. The Palestinians insisted on a written agreement, he said, because they had learned from the botched peace summit at Camp David of July 2000.

Intriguingly, we do not yet have nearly as detailed a picture of the Palestinian proposals as the Olmert ones, but given the extent and depth of the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas during 2008, and the apparent meeting of minds between them, the two plans could not have been that far apart. And indeed, in his recent TV interview, Erekat claimed that it was the "most advanced offer" ever made by Palestinians, echoing Olmert's similar claim from the Israeli side.

Echoes of the Olmert plan were, moreover, discernible in recent reports of remarks by Mahmoud Abbas, in which he is said to have proposed a land swap involving some 2.3 per cent of West Bank territory, (somewhat reduced from Olmert's 6.4 per cent), but which would leave larger Israeli settlement blocs, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, in Israel's hands, along with a swathe of land overlooking Ben-Gurion International Airport. In return, the Palestinians would get land bordering the southern West Bank, in addition to land for a "passageway" between the West Bank and Gaza. Olmert's tunnel? An underground rail system or subway? Or something more space age, like a roadway on stilts? Who may say?

Erekat almost acknowledged a congruence between the two plans when he asserted that the "Annapolis agreement did not fail... We turned every possible stone. Yes it's true we didn't reach an agreement, because instead of meeting us in Washington on January 3 to put the maps on the table as was agreed, Mr Olmert just went to Gaza."

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?

"We no longer need negotiations," said Erekat. "We need decisions. There was a proposal of Mr Olmert. There was a proposal from President Abbas, but this time we learned from what happened in Camp David. We submitted ours in writing, Olmert talked; I went to the US secretly and handed what we proposed in writing. History will show that President Abbas is a man of courage and commitment."

What Erekat does not consider is the strong possibility that either plan, if simply resurrected, would now be quite unacceptable to both Israeli and Arab opinion. Much water has flowed under the bridge since December 2008 -- not least the strengthening of Hamas's hold over Gaza. What would be the value of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that was totally rejected by the de facto Islamist power in Gaza, bolstered as it is by Iran and Syria? In his TV interview, Erekat acknowledged as much, going so far as to describe the Hamas coup d'etat in Gaza as "the worst thing that has happened to us" -- which, from the chief PA negotiator, is saying something.

Other sticking points to a final agreement are, on the Israeli side, the demand for an unambiguous Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state. The PA side are currently demanding an equally unambiguous declaration of a halt to all construction and development on the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a precondition to entering face-to-face discussions. Both issues seem little more than bargaining chips, relatively easily disposed of -- provided the game is actually being played out,

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

Neville Teller

*Abu Mazen is Mahmoud Abbas's "kunya", a naming method widely used in the Arab world as an alternative to given names. "Abu" (father) precedes the name of the bearer's first born, whether son or daughter.

Neville Teller, born in London, is a graduate of Oxford University. A writer for BBC radio and the audiobook industry, he has also been commenting on the Middle East for the past 30 years. His book "One Man's Israel" was published in 2008, and he has been writing his blog "A Mid-East Journal" (http://a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com/) since January of this year. He was awarded an MBE in the Queenís Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

Originally published as: The secret Palestinian peace offer at Mid-East Journal. Published by permission of the author.

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