Despite ostensible failure at UN, Trump plan has restored Abbas’s leadership

The Palestinian leader has regained his people’s support; the Israeli right is wrong to claim he was never a partner, and Netanyahu is to blame for the two-state solution’s demise

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert hold a press briefing on February 11, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert hold a press briefing on February 11, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s meeting and joint appearance Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN Security Council in New York was roundly lambasted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians.

But there are a few points worth remembering in this context that will burst the “no Palestinian partner” myth, which has been peddled by the right since Netanyahu became premier in 2009 pretending that peace can be made with a partner of your own choosing rather than with an enemy.

Abbas didn’t reject the Olmert plan

First, Abbas and the PA never said no to Ehud Olmert’s proposal. Ramallah understood at the time and understands to this day that it was the most far-reaching proposal it ever received.

Olmert presented his offer to Abbas on Tuesday, September 16, 2008, at the Prime Minister’s Office. Abbas want to take the map that he’d been shown, but Olmert refused, telling him that if he wanted the map he’d have to sign off on it immediately. Abbas asked for a few days. Five years later, in a 2013 interview with the Walla news site, Olmert said he was still waiting for Abbas’s call.

But Olmert forgot to mention his own resignation and legal woes. (He was later convicted of bribery and other corruption offenses and served 16 months in prison)

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

At first, both sides agreed that the following day, a Wednesday, advisers Shalom Turgeman and Saeb Erekat would meet with mapping experts to discuss the final contours of the borders. However, on Wednesday Erekat called and said Abbas had to leave for Jordan, and that after his return they would meet again the following week.

But on Sunday, September 21, 2008 — just five days after Olmert made his offer — he resigned as prime minister.

Abbas’s critics will say that even during that limited window he should have wasted no time and immediately inked an agreement with a resigning prime minister. On the other hand, one can understand a leader refusing to sign a historic peace treaty between two nations when the other side is represented by a lame duck whose successor will claim he only signed to evade criminal prosecution. Besides, Abbas’s associates are arguing to this day that then-defense minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni had both pressured Abbas not to sign due to Olmert’s legal and political woes.

What did the offer entail?

Olmert agreed to give up Israel’s sovereignty over the Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City, and suggested that the ultra-sensitive compound be run by a special committee with representatives of five countries — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinians, the United States and Israel.

The settlement blocs Israel sought to keep under its control included the area of the cities of Ariel and Maale Adumim, and the Etzion Bloc — in total, 6.3 percent of the West Bank. In return, Olmert offered territory exchanges in the areas of Afula/Tirat Zvi, Lachish, Har Adar, the Judean desert and near Gaza — a total of 5.8% of the West Bank. Additionally, Israel agreed to build a tunnel between Gaza and the West Bank.

Olmert also proposed to end the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, and to absorb some 5,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants — a thousand every year for five years — inside the pre-1967 Green Line.

On September 16, the same day he received the offer from Olmert, Abbas returned to his office in the Muqata’a in Ramallah, agitated and excited. He asked his advisers to keep quiet, took a Palestinian presidency notepaper and drew his recollection of the map Olmert had presented to him.

Abbas got the percentages wrong and wrote erroneous numbers next to the map.

Not the partner we deserve, but the partner we need

There is much to be said about Abbas’s leadership — whether he desires peace, whether he supports violence (after all, he continues to pay stipends to families of terrorists and terror convicts), etc.

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)

But we should remember all the facts and not just some of them. The period of rampant suicide bombings, long used by the right to slam former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, began during Yasser Arafat’s term as PA leader and ended after he died. Immediately after Abbas became president, the PA security forces began a widespread operation that included the arrest of anyone carrying illegal weapons or planning a suicide attack.

That didn’t happen just out of love for Israel, but out of an understanding that terrorism could doom the West Bank to a similar fate to Gaza’s — a coup by Hamas.

Abbas may not be Israel’s dream partner for a peace agreement, but he definitely was the relevant party for many years, until recently. The treatment he received from Israel and the White House made him and the two-state solution irrelevant, and any talk of the two-state solution has become absurd thanks to the reality created on the ground by the Israeli government.

Regained relevance

Abbas’s visit to New York, which ended Tuesday without a vote on a counter-offer to the Trump plan, was ostensibly a “failure” for Abbas. But the 84-year-old leader has largely regained public relevance thanks to the Trump plan.

Palestinians wave national flags as they take part in a protest against US President Donald Trump’s Mideast initiative in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 11, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/AP).

On Tuesday, many thousands took to the streets of Ramallah to express support for Abbas, despite the freezing weather. It is an achievement for the PA leader and his Fatah party, who managed to snap the Palestinian public our of its years-long apathy. Suddenly, Palestinian eyes are again on the Muqata’a, whether Israel likes it or not, and Abbas is again perceived as the leader of the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile, the Hamas terror group is continuing to play with fire in Gaza — literally. On Tuesday night it again fired two mortar shells at Israeli border-adjacent communities. It is clear that the preservation of the myth of the “resistance” is serving Hamas.

Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar and the movement’s senior officials genuinely believe that “the Jews only understand force” and that that is the only way for the Strip to win further economic concessions.

In the case of Netanyahu, they appear to be correct.

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