Ex-Israeli premier details failed peace offer, says any new deal would have to look like his

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Former Israeli premier details failed peace offer

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s former premier gave his most detailed description yet of his 2008 peace offer to the Palestinians, saying in a lecture Sunday that if the current talks are to succeed, the agreement would have to resemble the plan the Palestinians turned down two years ago.

The Palestinians deemed Ehud Olmert’s offer insufficient at the time, but wanted the more hawkish premier who replaced him, Benjamin Netanyahu, to use it as a starting point for negotiations. Instead, Netanyahu has taken it off the table.

Also Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed trading sections of Israel where its Arab citizens live for West Bank Jewish settlements as part of any peace deal.

Olmert’s statements in Tel Aviv were part of a rare political speech for the former prime minister, who resigned last year under a wave of corruption charges.

In his September 2008 plan, Olmert said he proposed a Palestinian state on more than 90 percent of the West Bank, with land swaps to make up for any land Israel annexed. In past interviews, he has said the Palestinians were offered close to 94 percent of the territory.

The West Bank and Gaza were to be linked through Israeli territory, and the Palestinians were to have a capital in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s coveted Old City, with its holy sites, one of the most intractable issues dividing the sides, was to be governed jointly by Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, he said.

Under Olmert’s offer, Israel would have recognized the suffering of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the fighting around Israel’s creation and would have agreed to repatriate a small number — less than 20,000 — for humanitarian reasons. The Bush administration agreed to take in 100,000 more as U.S. citizens in the framework of a peace deal, he said.

About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in the two-year war that surrounded Israel’s creation in 1948. Palestinians claim the right of return to their homes for the refugees and their descendants — at least 5 million people today.

Olmert said his offer could still be a blueprint for a peace accord. “We are really on the brink on this point, at least to the extent that I know the opinions of the Palestinian leadership,” Olmert said.

If Netanyahu’s government succeeds in reaching an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert said he believes “you’ve heard its main details this evening.”

The circumstances of the failure of Olmert’s peace talks with the Palestinians remain in dispute.

Olmert said he made his offer on Sept. 13, 2008, including detailed maps showing the Palestinian state, a land link between Gaza and the West Bank, and precise arrangements in Jerusalem, including roads, tunnels and bridges to enable the sharing of the city.

In May 2009, Abbas told The Washington Post that he couldn’t accept Olmert’s offer because “the gaps were wide.”

Olmert said Sunday, “There is no choice but to say that this agreement was not achieved when that was possible because the Palestinian side was not prepared to make the extra step that I believe we made.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat confirmed the details of Olmert’s offer Sunday. He said the Palestinians made a counter-offer, depositing their own map with the U.S. president three months later. He would not give details.

He said talks were ongoing when Israel invaded Gaza at the end of 2008. The invasion, launched to stop rocket fire by Gaza militants, halted the negotiations, and Olmert’s party lost power not long afterward.

Olmert announced his resignation under a cloud of corruption charges in late 2008, and Israeli voters — disillusioned about the chances of peace with the Palestinians — replaced his centrist government with a hard-line coalition. Netanyahu, long opposed to a Palestinian state, has since accepted the idea and this month launched negotiations of his own, resuming direct talks nearly two years after they were frozen.

President Barack Obama has said he hopes to reach a deal within a year.

Also Sunday, Lieberman, Netanyahu’s foreign minister and one of the most hawkish members of his coalition government, repeated a proposal to draw borders that would leave many of Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens under Palestinian control.

The principle guiding peace talks “must not be land for peace, but an exchange of land and people,” Lieberman told reporters before the weekly Cabinet meeting. Israel’s Arab citizens strongly oppose the idea.

Husam Zomlot, a Palestinian spokesman, said Lieberman’s comments undermined peace efforts.

Lieberman “holds the second-most important position in the Israeli government. Therefore we are extremely discouraged by his remarks,” he said.

Government spokesman Mark Regev noted that the various parties in Netanyahu’s coalition “have different political outlooks.”

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