'It was obvious that he was entirely for it'

‘Abbas never said no’ to 2008 peace deal, says former PM Olmert

Leader who offered Palestinians a state claims that behind closed doors, PA president ‘regrets that he didn’t sign’; adds that Hamas military threat doesn’t worry him

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, center, gestures to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, at a meeting at a hotel in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2007. (Flash90)
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, center, gestures to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, right, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, at a meeting at a hotel in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2007. (Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was privately in favor of the unprecedented peace deal that he walked away from in 2008, former prime minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday.

“It was obvious that he was entirely for it,” said Olmert, who negotiated with Abbas under American auspices in 2007 and 2008.

“I think that when someone will talk to him privately, eye to eye, behind closed doors, he will say that he regrets that he didn’t sign.”

Olmert made his comments during a Zoom interview with Dr. Sherry Sufi, an Australian writer and scholar.

“He understands now that it could have been a great change in their lives.”

In 2015, Abbas said he rejected the offer from Olmert — which included placing Jerusalem’s Old City under international control — because he was not allowed to study the map.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks to Australian scholar Sherry Sufi via Zoom, on June 24, 2021. (Screenshot)

“I did not agree,” Abbas once told Israel’s Channel 10. “I rejected it out of hand.”

A sketch of the land for peace offer made by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. The map was hand-drawn by Abbas. (photo credit: Walla News)

Olmert said he had offered a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank, proposing that Israel retain 6.3% of the territory in order to keep control of major Jewish settlements. He said he offered to compensate the Palestinians with Israeli land equivalent to 5.8% of the West Bank, along with a link to the Gaza Strip — another territory meant to be part of a future Palestinian state.

Olmert was also prepared to divide Jerusalem into two Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled cities, and to relinquish Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the entire Old City. He proposed that the “Holy Basin” be overseen instead by a five-member, non-sovereign international trusteeship, comprising Israel, the PA, Jordan, the US and Saudi Arabia.

Former PM Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, November 2008. (photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (L) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, November 2008. (Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)

He described the offer to give up Israeli control of the Old City as the hardest day of his life.

Abbas said in 2015 that he supported the idea of territorial swaps, but that Olmert had pressed him into agreeing to the plan without allowing him to study the proposed map.

Related: Hand-drawn map shows what Olmert offered for peace

Abbas said he also felt Olmert’s offer to accept a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees into Israel did not resolve the issue — because descendants of Palestinian refugees now number in the millions, many scattered across the region.

During the Thursday conversation, Olmert was even more generous to Abbas’s position during the talks than the PA chairman himself was in 2015.

“Abbas never said no,” Olmert emphasized.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) points at a map of Jerusalem as Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert looks at it during a press briefing at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, on February 26, 1997, as Israel’s government approved construction of a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem. (AP PHOTO/Haitham Hamad)

“Not only did he not say no — the whole rumor about him rejecting it flatly is untrue,” he continued. “At every possible occasion, from then on until today, President Abbas emphasizes and he relays to me as well… that he never ever said no to this plan.”

“What he actually said to me was this plan sounds very impressive, it sounds very serious… He was excited and very open-minded to the option of making this agreement. But he said, you know, I’m not an expert on maps. How can I sign something before I show it to the experts on our side to examine it?”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, and then Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, left, speak as they head the first cabinet meeting of the new coalition government at Abbas’ office in Gaza City, on March 18, 2007. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

“Mahmoud Abbas is a very qualified gentleman, a decent, peace-loving person. I like him, I trust him, I would’ve made peace with him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for reasons that are beyond my comprehension, sometimes.”

“I can’t talk for him,” said the former prime minister.

In his book Tested by Zion, veteran US diplomat Elliott Abrams explored a number of reasons why Abbas rejected Olmert’s offer. He may have been waiting for then-US president George W. Bush’s successor to take office before committing to a peace agreement, he might have seen Olmert as a lame duck under criminal investigation, or he may not have had the legitimacy among Palestinians to make a deal ending the conflict.

Elliott Abrams (Photo credit: Courtesy/Tikvah Fund)

In his talk with Sufi, Olmert brought up the possibility that the conflict is the “source of livelihood” for Palestinian terrorist groups, and that they had deterred Abbas from making a deal.

Others have suggested that Abbas was ultimately unwilling to give up on the demand for Israel to allow millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees to settle inside the country as full citizens, a red line Olmert was not willing to cross as it would destroy Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

A 2013 New Republic cover story reported that Olmert proposed allowing the relocation of a symbolic number of Palestinian refugees (5,000 over the course of five years) within Israeli borders, while offering compensation and resettlement for the rest.

“I would’ve compromised a little,” Olmert said at the time.

“Highly knowledgeable sources” quoted in the story claimed that Abbas told then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that he would be willing to accept a deal wherein Israel would accept somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 refugees.

“Israel’s prime minister made a peace offer, and the Palestinian leader — head of the Fatah Party, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority — rejected it,” wrote Abrams on his blog. “Those who wish to blame Israel for the continuing lack of progress in achieving a comprehensive peace agreement will presumably pay no attention to this interview, but the facts are in.”

Sufi said that he organized the talk to help clarify why Olmert and Abbas did not conclude a peace deal.

“Many anti-Israel critics claim that if only Israel withdrew to 1967 borders, that would solve the conflict and Mr. Olmert’s peace plan in 2008 was pretty much the closest thing to exactly that, which then necessitates the question, why wasn’t it taken up?” said Sufi. “There is a lot of conflicting information out there about what went wrong, why that deal wasn’t concluded, and so I thought it would be good to hear straight from Mr. Olmert himself. That was the thinking behind that interview.”

“I found his attitude towards the Palestinian leadership to be incredibly sympathetic, which is fascinating because that in itself shows the diversity of thoughts that exists in modern Israeli society.”

The Hamas threat

Olmert also expressed his position on the ongoing Hamas threat from the Gaza Strip and what Israel’s policy should be toward the civilians there.

“We should change the paradigm of the Israeli influence in Gaza,” he said. “We should help them build a deep water harbor, we should help them create more jobs… so that they will have an interest not to be the captives of Hamas in the political and military aggression against the state of Israel. The only way to do it is to lay the foundations for an improved quality of life for the Palestinians in Gaza.”

Members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, march in Gaza City on May 22, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

He also downplayed the threat that Hamas poses to Israel.

“The one thing that doesn’t really worry me is the military threat of the Hamas. Not that I like it, but at any given time, under any possible circumstance we can have in mind, we can destroy Hamas in Gaza or in any place they would be. They know it and we know it.”

AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report. 

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