By: Sandy Tolan
Among the time-honoured myths in the long tragedy of Israel and Palestine is "the deal that almost was". The latest entry, what we might call the "near deal of 2008," comes from Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, chronicled in excerpts from his forthcoming memoir and feverishly promoted in The New York Times as "the Israel peace plan that almost was and still could be".
Clearly, the dwindling number of promoters of the two-state solution are in a post-Cairo, post-Palestine Papers attempt to keep afloat what is, in the end, a sinking ship: A bad deal that even the weak Palestinian negotiating team would not accept. "Israel has an overwhelming interest in going the extra mile," a nervous Thomas Friedman wrote as protestors filled Tahrir Square, warning: "There is a huge storm coming, Israel. Get out of the way."
At the heart of the effort to salvage the busted remnants of Oslo is the "near deal of 2008". "We were very close, more than ever before," Olmert writes in his memoirs.
But as they say in a famous TV ad in the US: "Not exactly."
Old myths die hard
Like other such fictions - chief among them "Israel's generous offer" at Camp David in 2000 - this one is not entirely without substance. As the Palestine Papers show, the two sides did agree on various security arrangements, land swaps and some principles of the right of return, much to the alarm of many Palestinians. Just as significantly, Palestinian negotiators agreed to allow Israel to annex major settlement blocs in East Jerusalem - a fact that, in the wake of the document dump, is eroding what is left of Abbas' credibility among his own people. (As if to underscore that point, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned last week in disgrace, after revelations that the Palestine Papers were leaked from his very own office.)
Yet despite the 2008 concessions, the documents also show that the negotiations did not bring the sides close to a deal. Rather, they revealed red lines that signal the end of the peace process as we know it, and - especially after Cairo - the death of the two-state solution. Nowhere is this more clear than in the discussions over two huge settlement blocs, where Israel, backed by an arm-twisting US, undermined its last chance for a two-state deal.
In 1993, at the beginning of the Oslo "peace process," 109,000 Israeli settlers lived on West Bank Palestinian land, not including East Jerusalem. That number has now nearly tripled. One of the settlements, Ariel, juts well into the West Bank, nearly half the way to Jordan from the Mediterranean coast, and is protected by Israel's separation barrier. Ariel, with nearly 20,000 people, promotes itself as the aspiring "capital of Samaria" with its own industrial park and even a university.
"There is no Israeli leader who will sign an agreement that does not include Ariel," Tzipi Livni, Olmert's foreign minister, told Palestinian negotiators in April 2008.
"And there is no Palestinian leader who will sign an agreement that includes Ariel," negotiator Ahmad Qurei replied. Qurei was not just posturing. Ariel bifurcates the Palestinian district of Salfit and helps make a mockery of US diplomats' stated goal of a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state.
Another red line is Ma'ale Adumim. Despite the significant concessions in East Jerusalem - which Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said amounted to "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history" - the Palestinians see Ma'ale Adumim as a wedge between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. For them, the settlement is another barrier to a contiguous land base on which to build their state. For Israelis, Ma'ale Adumim, founded with the support of then defence minister Shimon Peres in 1975 and now a "city" of more than 34,000 settlers, is untouchable.
In theory, the self-described "honest broker," the US, could have tried to bridge the differences. But that is not what Condoleezza Rice, the then US secretary of state, had in mind when she leaned on the weak Palestinian delegation in a July 2008 meeting in Jerusalem:
"I don’t think that any Israeli leader is going to cede Ma'ale Adumim," she told Qurei.
"Or any Palestinian leader," Qurei replied.
"Then you won’t have a state!" Rice declared.
On the wrong side of history
The US has long been hypersensitive to Israeli domestic political considerations while ignoring those of the Palestinians and the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. In 2000, Yasser Arafat turned down Israel's "generous offer," refusing to agree to a "sovereign presidential compound" in the Old City - essentially, a golden cage near the Muslim holy sites. Arafat understood that neither Palestinians nor Muslims worldwide would agree to such limited Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram Al Sharif, considered the third holiest site in Islam. "If anyone imagines that I might sign away Jerusalem, he is mistaken," Arafat told Bill Clinton, the then US president, at Camp David. "You have lost many chances," Clinton responded. "You won't have a Palestinian state .... You will be alone in the region."
The US' tone-deaf approach to Palestinian realities is a central reason for the failure of the "peace process". Rice suggested in a June 2008 meeting that one way to help solve the entrenched and emotional issue of right of return would be to ship refugees to South America. Barack Obama's team has not fared much better. In 2009, the US pressured the Palestinians to stall the release of the UN's Goldstone Report calling for an investigation into Israeli war crimes in Gaza. This was precisely the opposite of what the Palestinian public fervently wanted. The US carrot: More favourable negotiating terms for the Palestinian Authority (PA).
But the US, so accustomed to dealing with Arab strongmen like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, seems to have forgotten that the weak Palestinian negotiators were in no position to ignore, much less dictate to, their people. Any peace deal would have been put to a referendum among politically-aware Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A deal as unfavourable as that the US and Israel promoted in 2008 would have been far from a sure thing. Olmert recalls telling Abbas: "Take the pen and sign now. You'll never get an offer that is more fair or more just." But it was the Israelis, and the US, who missed their chance.
In the days just before Egyptians liberated themselves, Obama tried to shore up some of the US credibility squandered since his 2009 Cairo speech by supporting the calls for democracy. But for many Palestinians, US or PA credibility is no longer relevant. In the West Bank, people regard US pronouncements with sharply declining interest. And it was the PA, in the midst of the euphoric struggle of its neighbours, that placed itself firmly on the wrong side of history by banning demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people. "The policy," said a PA security spokesman "is non-interference in the internal affairs of Arab or foreign countries."
You could not find a more apt symbol of a corroded and irrelevant Palestinian regime, shockingly out of touch with its people and the jubilation in Tahrir Square, and structurally unable to seize the moment. Now, with the PA's negotiations team in disarray, it is hard to imagine Palestinians in the West Bank again putting their trust in the "authority," or in the wreckage of an Oslo process tied to a Middle Eastern order that no longer exists.
Even in their last-ditch attempts to forge a two-state deal, beleaguered Palestinian negotiators seemed aware that it was slipping away. "In light of these circumstances and these unrealistic propositions," Qurei told Livni in frustration in April 2008, "I see that the only solution is a bi-national state where Muslims, Christians and Jews live together".
Sandy Tolan is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC, and the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East.