the Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2007 and 2008 provide an invaluable template for a new, Obama-led push for peace. As unlikely as it might sound, now is the time. Obama’s hand in Israel has been strengthened by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. At the same time, the U.S. is paying a growing price for the current impasse between Israel and Palestine and the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, for which Americans receive much of the blame. A settlement in Palestine will not put bread on Egyptian tables, but it will transform American status in the region. And it might rescue the fortunes of Israel.
The negotiations on borders ended here, with Olmert telling Abbas among other things that no Israeli prime minister could ever remove Ariel, and Abbas telling Olmert that no Palestinian president could ever accept it. “I told him, ‘Sign,’ ” Olmert said. “ ‘You will never get a better proposal from any Israeli government for the next 50 years.’ ” Abbas would not sign. He asked for Olmert’s map, which Olmert refused to give him unless he signed off on it. Olmert told me he thought Abbas delayed partly because he hoped to get a better deal on the map from an Obama administration. Removing Ariel, in any case, remained perhaps the most freighted border dispute, since this settlement would be the most disruptive to Palestinian development.
Abbas still expects America to put the deal over. The gaps appear so pitifully small: Ariel and a couple of other settlements, the question of whether parts of Silwan would be a part of the holy basin, a compromise number on refugees? “We still want bridging proposals,” Abbas told me, adding, “we want America to be a strong broker.” Without a deal, Jerusalem and the West Bank will almost certainly explode again.
But Abbas could anyway soon be gone. He told me he expects America to act to bring about a plan by this fall. That is what the Obama administration once promised, that it would work to secure a deal on a Palestinian state by September 2011.
Condoleezza Rice, Olmert said, prepared a confidential memo for the incoming administration. He could not understand why Obama “did not adopt these achievements as policy.” Abbas told me he is still waiting for an American initiative: “America is the broker; we cannot replace it.” Did he want the understandings he reached with Olmert to become the basis of new American-sponsored talks with Netanyahu? “I demanded this,” he said.
Olmert made his offer as a sitting prime minister familiar with the views of the Israeli general staff and military intelligence. Now, with a new regime taking shape in Egypt and serious changes under way in Jordan, Israel will be more dependent on American diplomacy and military support than ever. It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.
Hamas controls Gaza but has committed to honoring any deal Abbas negotiated for the 1967 borders as long as its terms would be submitted to a referendum, which Abbas has solemnly promised to call.
“There is a danger that the events in Egypt will mislead some to lose hope in peace,” Olmert told me pointedly in an e-mail. “I think the opposite, that there can be another way to challenge the events near us. This is the time to move forward, fast, take my peace initiative with the Palestinians and make a deal. This will be my advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Don’t wait. Move, lead and make history. This is the time. There will not be a better one.”