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Then-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in Jerusalem, on November 17, 2008. (Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)
Moshe Milner, GPO/Flash90
Olmert: I put Jerusalem 'on the table' on Day 1 of the talks

Ehud Olmert: When peace was within arm’s reach, I was politically ‘assassinated’

In new memoirs, jailbird ex-PM alleges a conspiracy of Israeli forces thwarted him: ‘They killed Rabin with bullets. I live in Maasiyahu jail. This, too, is an assassination’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Main image by Moshe Milner, GPO/Flash90

In June 2007, just 10 days after the Hamas terrorist group’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, Israeli intelligence zoomed in on a rare opening.

Then-Israeli PM Ehud Olmert meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in Jerusalem, on November 17, 2008. (Moshe Milner GPO/Flash90)

Flush with victory, Hamas’s senior leadership  had gathered in a single building in the coastal enclave. Security services alerted then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, requesting authorization to launch a strike to assassinate eight of the terrorist group’s leaders in one devastating swoop.

But Olmert rejected the proposition out of hand. The reason: He was sitting in Sharm el-Sheikh alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Jordanian king Abdullah II and then-Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak for peace talks.

“During the meeting, I was called out to be informed that in a certain building in Gaza were all of the Hamas leaders in Gaza, including Ahmed Jabari and Mohammed Deif. The security services asked for approval to ‘thwart’ them, but it wasn’t the right time,” writes Olmert, in his newly published Hebrew memoirs.

Wiping out all of Hamas’s leaders at this moment, the Israeli prime minister reasoned, could inadvertently implicate the Palestinian, Egyptian, and Jordanian leaders and bust up the negotiations. (Jabari would be killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2012. Deif was last targeted in a 2014 raid; Hamas claims he survived the attempt.)

“This sort of assassination, while I was sitting with Abu Mazen [Abbas], Mubarak, and Abdullah, would appear to be a joint conspiracy,” Olmert writes. “Who would believe I hadn’t informed them while we were sitting together and Israeli air force planes were assassinating eight senior Palestinian leaders? [Then-defense minister Ehud] Barak agreed with me.”

Olmert returned to the room in Sharm el-Sheikh. Abbas asked him why he had been summoned. Olmert replied he would tell him when the time was right. A year later, “I told him, and explained why I didn’t do what I would have been happy to do in any other moment. What could be more appropriate in that period than assassinating the political and military leadership of Hamas in one blow? I never shared the story with Abdullah and Mubarak, not then and not at any other opportunity.”

This revelation, among others, appears in the newly published Hebrew book by Olmert, penned in prison, while he was serving 16 months for corruption, the first jail term for an Israeli prime minister.

In the nearly 900-page book, “In Person,” published on Thursday, the former prime minister details his ultimately unsuccessful peacemaking efforts with Abbas in 2007-2008, which culminated in an Israeli offer to relinquish the entire West Bank and East Jerusalem, with mutual land swaps of some six percent of the territory, and to place Jerusalem’s Old City — including the Western Wall — under international control.

Then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian negotiators Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) and Saeb Erekat 1th L), in a meeting in Jerusalem, May 4, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

The deal was never accepted by the Palestinians, with various reasons given for the rejection: the Palestinians feared that Olmert was a “lame duck” prime minister whose deal would never be implemented; the response to the Palestinian refugee issue was insufficient from the PA’s perspective; or, as Abbas told Channel 10 in 2015, that Olmert let him see — but not take home — the initial map outlining the borders. Critics of the PA point to the Olmert offer, which featured the heaviest Israeli concessions ever raised at the negotiating table, as proof of Palestinian intransigence and unwillingness to reach a peace deal.

Though Olmert has addressed the attempts in previous news reports, the new memoirs by the Likud-hawk-turned-Kadima-dove shed more light on the “far-reaching” concessions he was willing to make, his thinking at the time, and conversations with the Palestinian and US leadership during the negotiations.

The publication of the book also comes as the Trump administration hammers out its own peace proposal, while the Palestinians are snubbing the White House over its December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and funding is being cut from the UN refugee agency for Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The recognition of the capital takes Jerusalem “off the table” before talks begin, US President Donald Trump has said. The US also passed a law over the weekend cutting funding to the PA over stipends paid out to Palestinian terrorists and their families.

By contrast, in his memoirs, the former Jerusalem mayor boasts that he put “Jerusalem on the table” on the first day of negotiations, as well as upping the number of Palestinian prisoners Israel was willing to release beyond the Palestinian demand.

After the Hamas coup in Gaza, then-US president George Bush was skeptical of Abbas’s ability to clinch a deal, writes Olmert. “He doesn’t know how to seize opportunities,” he quotes the former US president as saying of Abbas in the Hebrew text. “He won’t follow through.”

Then president George W. Bush reaches out to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (R) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) at the Middle East Peace Conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, November 27, 2007. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90).

Palestinian prisoners, tax money, Jerusalem

In their very first meeting in December 2006, at the Prime Minister’s Residence, where the Palestinian flag was placed for the first time alongside the Israeli flag, Olmert was eager to show the PA leader he was willing to go “far.”

The first issue raised by Abbas was Palestinian prisoners, he writes.

“Abu Mazen said this is a critical issue for the Palestinians, and it touches thousands of families. We were prepared for this request. It was obvious that it related to Fatah prisoners and not those of Hamas. I asked how many prisoners he expects we release,” he writes. “He threw out the number 500. I said there would be no problem to release 900. The guests looked at each other. This was unfamiliar. Then they requested another 1,000 rifles for law enforcement. I answered in the affirmative.” (Israel ultimately freed 780 prisoners that year)

The cover of Ehud Olmert’s book, “In Person,” released March 2018 (Times of Israel staff)

Abbas pressed on with a series of requests, and Olmert approved them all, the former prime minister writes.

“In the end, hesitantly, Abu Mazen said they needed money that we deduct on their behalf as customs duties and levies for goods imported to PA territory. I asked them how much money they needed. ‘Israel always releases less than we need,’ said Abu Mazen. ‘They urged me to request 10 million shekels, but we really need 50 million. That is my request.’ That is imprecise, I said. The sum you gave is incorrect. Abu Mazen was prepared for my refusal. ‘I knew that you would say no,’ he said. ‘It’s always that way.'”

“‘Mr. President,’ I replied. ‘I think I know much money you need. It’s not 50 million shekel, it’s 100 million dollars. We are willing to hand over the entire sum, and from now on we will hand over all the money we deduct on your behalf.’ Silence. The guests were unsure they heard or understood correctly. Did the prime minister say just now he will hand over a sum eight times larger than what they had requested? That was what I said. The money is theirs.”

“I raised the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state with Abu Mazen. I told him we don’t need Palestinian recognition, and the State of Israel — by definition of its Declaration of Independence that established it — is a Jewish state.”

Then came Jerusalem.

“‘Everything is on the table, including Jerusalem,’ I told Abu Mazen on the first night. I am not ruling out any issue from discussion,'” said Olmert.

It would be over a year, however, before Olmert would present his final plan for the Old City, including the Temple Mount and Western Wall: placing it under international control led by five UN Security Council-appointed leaders from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, the United States, and the Palestinians.

At a later point in the text, Olmert asserts that East Jerusalem residents had no interest in being separated from Jerusalem, complicating matters for Abbas. “The real hardship for Abu Mazen stemmed from the fact that most of the Palestinians in the neighborhoods and villages that were artificially annexed into Jerusalem are not interested in being torn away from the city. They prefer to remain citizens of a united Jerusalem, which gives them freedom of movement in Israel and significant financial privileges, like national insurance, medical care, education and more.”

When he raised Jerusalem on that first night, Abbas “was surprised but expressed satisfaction, and chose to raise the refugee issue for the first time. I told him right away that under no circumstances would I agree to what they call the ‘right of return.’ It’s out of the question.

“Abu Mazen said a sentence that I did not forget over the next two years during which we spoke dozens of times. ‘I need something symbolic on the refugees. I don’t want to change the nature of the State of Israel.'”

Olmert clung to this statement, seeing it as a tacit recognition by Abbas of Israel’s Jewish character — a demand he did not seek from the Palestinians as part of a future peace deal, unlike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Olmert’s chief negotiator and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

“I raised the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state with Abu Mazen. I told him we don’t need Palestinian recognition, and the State of Israel — by definition of its Declaration of Independence that established it — is a Jewish state.”

Abbas “stressed that from his perspective, Israel is a Jewish state, but he is subject to difficult pressures from Arab Israelis, particularly its political leadership, who warned him many times that the ‘Jewish state’ is only a code name. Behind it lurks the intention to adopt Avigdor Liberman’s ideology: If Israel is a Jewish state, there is no room for Arabs. Meaning, defining Israel as a Jewish state would be interpreted as an agreement to remove its Arabs.”

“The person who turned this into a bone of contention was Tzipi Livni, who declared she demanded a commitment from the Palestinians that they will recognize Israel as a Jewish state. As happened to her occasionally, she was dragged there without giving an accounting of how she was foiling, without realizing it, the advancement of talks. I soothed Abu Mazen, and told him I did not seek any commitment during negotiations. I have no shortage of criticism of Tzipi Livni, but she aspired to and hoped to make peace — even if she sabotaged the process occasionally because of her less than in-depth thinking.”

Livni was also “subversive,” telling then-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in 2008 that Olmert was not relevant and would soon be removed from power, he writes, adding that he believed the foreign minister would ultimately have supported his peace proposal.

Then-US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, left, shakes hands with then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, during a press conference at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, March 30. 2008. (Olivier Fitoussi/ FLASH90)

‘There was no US pressure’

In his book, Olmert claims there was no pressure from Washington to clinch a peace deal.

“During my tenure as prime minister, we were free of any pressure or initiative of any outside source,” he writes. “No outside pressure was needed. We pressured ourselves.”

But he later signals that the US administration was conditioning American action against the Iran nuclear program on the advancement of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“The consistent American position was that the quicker we reach an agreement with the Palestinians, [the faster] we can then advance cooperation with Arab states on the Iranians. The attempt to pressure us in this direction was unnecessary,” writes Olmert.

“We sped up negotiations in any event, and pushed to step up the rate of talks without any outside push and independent of the Iranian bomb. We were the ones who initiated, raised ideas, presented bold new positions and were keen on keeping up contacts without pause. The Arab states, too, especially those closest to the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Emirates, pushed for vigorous and determined American action against Iran. They didn’t link this to the advancement of negotiations between us and the Palestinians.”

Then-president George W. Bush reaches out to then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (L) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R), at the Middle East Peace Conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, November 27, 2007. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Olmert says Bush promised to give 100,000 Palestinian refugees US citizenship if a peace deal was reached. “This was a dramatic promise. We decided to keep this announcement as a crucial bargaining chip at the right time.”

As for Rice, the former prime minister suggests she was more empathetic to the Palestinian side. “She aspired to change the situation in the region, but although she was fair to us and never ignored our needs and problems, her heart was with the Palestinian suffering,” he writes.

The final offer

Outlining his final offer, Olmert confirms he did not seek an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, favoring international troops instead. He demanded the disarmament of a future Palestinian state, and insisted there would no airport on Palestinian territory.

Israel would accept 5,000 Palestinian refugees as citizens over five years, but only as a humanitarian gesture rather than a “right of return,” and would require the PA to pledge they would no longer seek any other compensation for refugees and a declaration the conflict was over. An international fund would compensate both Palestinians and Jews expelled from Arab lands, he stipulated.

Israel would evacuate all of the settlements in the West Bank, with the exception of the Etzion Bloc, Ma’ale Adumim, and Ariel, as well as retaining all of the Jewish neighborhoods in the capital.

The West Bank Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim on October 26, 2017, in a photo taken from the Israeli settlement of Kedar. (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

In exchange for absorbing these areas, some 6.3% of the territory, Olmert struggled to find territories to exchange with the Palestinians as part of the land swap. He ultimately cobbled together some 5.8% of the land, with another 0.5% included in a tunnel planned to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

The lands that would be relinquished included Israeli territory bordering Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, he writes. “Areas in Israel that we were willing to give up to Palestinian control were also marked. They were spread from the Beit She’an valley, not far from Tirat Tzvi, and wound near the 1967 lines, south of Afula, not far from Netanya; near the peaks overlooking Jerusalem around Nataf;  near Lachish; south of the Judean Desert; and along the Gaza Strip.”

“I believed today, as I believed then, that the vast majority [of Israelis] would support this deal and would be willing to pay the price needed to enjoy the fruits it bears,” he writes.

Olmert was also dismissive of security concerns that West Bank territory would be seized by Hamas forces, much like Gaza, and be used as a launching pad for rockets aimed at population centers in central Israel.

“I came close — and brought everyone closer — to the end of the conflict, to peace, to reconciliation. It was within arm’s reach, but they prevented me from getting there.”

“They say that a withdrawal from most of Judea and Samaria will allow terrorist groups to fire rockets at the heart of the country. Look at Gaza for example. The true answer is less simplistic and less demagogic. First, terror does not represent an existential threat to Israel. There is no need to exaggerate,” he writes.

“It endangers human lives, this is true, but evacuating territory does not mean a disengagement of intelligence from the region. If and when we know a terrorist act is being planned, if we recognize weapon-making factories, there will be nothing stopping us from entering with special forces, to strike, destroy, and then come home.”

Rice was “astounded” by his offer, said Olmert. When he later presented the plan to Abbas, he expected Abbas to demand more refugees, more land. But he did not. The PA president asked for a copy of the map to consult with his map experts. Olmert conditioned acceding to that request on Abbas signing his initials on the map, signaling his support. Abbas demurred, instead later drawing up a rough map from memory.

And then the Palestinians never called.

“Nearly a decade has passed,” writes Olmert. “The Palestinians have yet to respond to my offer.”

‘This, too, is an assassination’

In his book, the formerly jailed prime minister — released in July 2017 — bitterly blames a confluence of forces, including “extremist right-wing figures,” backed by Jewish American billionaires, and the largely left-wing “army of purists,” including prosecutors, judges, the attorney general, state comptroller, media, and the “corrupt” police, for removing him from power.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert leaves Ramle’s Ma’asiyahu prison on July 2, 2017, following his release. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The goal was to prevent a peace accord, just a hair’s breadth away, Olmert alleges repeatedly in a series of tirades, without fully explaining how the forces allegedly collaborated. Denying all wrongdoing in the corruption cases for which he was convicted and jailed, the former prime minister insists he was felled as part of a conspiracy to thwart a peace deal.

From right to left, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Miri Aloni, foreign minister Shimon Peres and Knesset speaker Shevah Weiss sing a ‘Song for Peace’ at the end of a rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995. Rabin was assassinated as he left the rally minutes later. (AP photo)

“I came close — and brought everyone closer — to the end of the conflict, to peace, to reconciliation. It was within arm’s reach, but they prevented me from getting there,” he writes.

“They killed [former prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin with bullets, after a terrible incitement campaign whose outcome was inevitable. I live in Wing 10 in Maasiyahu [prison]. This, too, is an assassination.”

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