She killed the lie, I thought, as I read Condoleezza Rice's semi-revelations about the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that was really almost reached three years ago.
The lie says that Israel's then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, offered everything the Palestinians could possibly expect, and Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas said no because he isn't interested in peace. Rice was secretary of state at the time and seems to have believed in peacemaking, despite serving under George W. Bush. In her new memoir, she confirms an account of why peace slipped away that fits evidence and logic much better than the lie does.
Then I thought again: The lie won't go away. It provides current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his domestic legitimacy and his overseas defense of his policies—a defense that works poorly outside of the United States, but working there is enough to protect him from any sudden impulse by Barack Obama to renew the peace process. The lie is presented softly by Netanyahu's good-cop moderate spokesman and his bad-cop hard-line spokesman. Condi can kill the lie, but it will climb right back out of the grave. It's too useful to stay dead.
As Rice recounts, Olmert deeply wanted to reach a deal. This was a truly awe-inspiring surprise of Israeli history. Olmert, scion of a far-right political family, had spent a lifetime in politics advocating Israeli rule over the Whole Land of Israel. In 2003, he had his first Ehud-on-the-road-to-Ramallah moment: He recognized that Israel could not survive as a Jewish state unless it gave up most of the West Bank. At first he favored a unilateral pullback so Israel could keep whichever settlements it wanted. After the disastrous Lebanon War of 2006, he had a second revelation: Military power couldn't keep Israel safe if hostile forces controlled territory it gave up. It needed a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
At first Olmert delegated Tzipi Livni, his foreign minister, to conduct talks with Abbas's representative Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala). Then he got impatient, negotiated directly with Abbas, and came terribly close to a deal. As Bernard Avishai has reported in the fullest account of the talks, Olmert and Abbas agreed on demilitarizing the Palestinian state and internationalizing Jerusalem's Old City. They had not quite closed the gap on borders or on the number of Palestinian refugees who'd return to Israel. Nonetheless, both leaders were ready to make politically dangerous concessions. Late in 2008, the talks stalled. Olmert presented a new map of final borders and wanted Abbas to sign off on it.
The Palestinian side has "disappeared ever since," Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told me earlier this year. Meridor is also an ex-believer in the Whole Land, a man whose moderation makes a mystery of his willingness to serve in Netanyahu's government. Abbas's refusal to take Olmert's offer, he said, "raised questions" about whether the Palestinian leader was willing to end the conflict with Israel.
Netanyahu's bad-cop spokesman, Vice Premier Shaul Ya'alon, had no open questions when he spoke to me. Abbas had shown that Israel had no Palestinian peace partner, he said. Israel could not return to talks on final-status issues such as borders until Abbas provided new assurances—for instance, that he would go beyond previous PLO recognition of Israel to recognize it specifically "as the nation-state of the Jewish people."
According to the Netanyahu government, Israeli settlements aren't holding up negotiations. Nor is Abbas's bid for U.N. recognition a way of reaching a two-state solution. By saying no to Olmert, Abbas showed he didn't want a solution, and there's not anything Israel can do about it.
Now for Rice's version: She notes that Abbas wouldn't sign the map without checking with his experts (which was reasonable), that Olmert didn't want to give him a copy (less reasonable), and that a planned follow-up meeting didn't happen, for reasons she doesn't explain. But she adds a critical element: "Tzipi Livni urged me (and, I believe, Abbas ) not to enshrine the Olmert proposal." The word enshrine is ambiguous. Livni's intent is not: She didn't think a deal could be signed with Olmert, who was already a lame duck facing numerous corruption allegations. "He has no standing in Israel," Livni told Rice, and apparently Abbas too.
Why accept this version? First, it makes sense. Olmert's popular support was registering below a pollster's statistical error. There was no reason to think he could convince the Israeli public to accept concessions such as giving up the Old City. Abbas risked conceding basic Palestinian demands and being left with nothing. Besides, Livni had been cut out of the talks. She has said publicly she didn't like Olmert's deal. A former corporate lawyer, her salient characteristic as a politician is certainty that other people have given away too much in negotiations. And she was overconfident about winning the 2009 Israeli election.
Second, Rice's version fits other evidence. At a 2009 conference in Jerusalem, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said that his sources had told him that Livni "said specifically to the U.S. and to Abu Ala [that they] don't dare do this deal." Olmert himself wrote recently that his offer was "never formally rejected by Mr. Abbas." Olmert delicately refrained from mentioning his own legal problems at the time as a reason that Abbas—or Livni—might have thought he couldn't deliver the goods.
Third, Abbas's own career as PLO leader is based entirely on a platform of achieving a two-state solution. In a recent interview on Israel's Channel 2 TV, Abbas declared that when Palestinians and the wider Arab world rejected the United Nation's original 1947 decision to partition Palestine between a Jewish and Arab state, "it was our mistake. It was an Arab mistake as a whole." That is, he told Israelis that he believes partition of the contested homeland into two states is still the right path—even if he did not accept an offer from an Israeli leader about to move from the prime minister's office to the defendant's bench.
Netanyahu's own attitude toward peacemaking was indicated most recently in the prisoner exchange with Hamas. Let's leave aside the reasons that Israelis regarded freeing a thousand prisoners for one captive soldier as necessary; that's a separate discussion of Israeli social solidarity. Pay attention, instead, that Netanyahu was willing to reach a deal with an extreme Palestinian organization—but he is unwilling to make gestures that would strengthen the moderates led by Abbas. On the surface, this behavior is beyond foolish: It shows that Israel will respond to force but not to diplomacy. But Netanyahu has no reason to strengthen the moderates: They want him to give up the West Bank. The extremists do him the favor of proving that peace is unachievable.
The Israeli public's acceptance of the lie is, unfortunately, understandable. In the midst of a long conflict, there is a natural tendency for people to believe that their own side's benevolent intentions are obvious, while reading the other side's actions suspiciously. Netanyahu's PR sells less well abroad—except among leaders of the mainstream pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. and among Republican politicians eager to make support for Israel into an election issue.
I read Rice and thought: The lie is useful to Netanyahu, and to his useful idiots. It's a creature of zombie politics: Kill it, and it gets up and lives again. And then I thought: Each time a falsehood is nicked by new evidence, it gets a bit weaker. One day it will collapse, in a blather of horror-movie shouts from its believers. In the quiet that comes after, perhaps we can make peace.
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