Condi the Zombie Killer

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.


If you look at the history of offers and negotiations, you can easily see that Netanyahu and his supporters have no actual interest in resolving the conflict. When it was convenient for them to oppose talks at all, there was no difference between Fatah and Hamas - you couldn't talk to either. When Hamas won elections and took control of Gaza the differences suddenly were once again manifest, and while negotiation with Fatah was possible it was argued that there was little purpose without their unified control over Palestinian lands, and that any agreement that required the assent and cooperation of Hamas could not be trusted.

When it was important to pretend that Arafat received an incredibly generous offer from Ehud Barak that, we were told, no sensible Palestinian leader would have rejected, it was possible to resolve all border issues in a single stroke. All that it required was for Arafat to accept a map created by Israel, no questions asked, no room for negotiation. Afterward, Netanyahu and Sharon took the position that negotiations over borders could only come at the very end of negotiations (despite it being patently obvious that as long as they kept grabbing land at the margins and expanding settlements, negotiations were doomed to fail). Then Olmert supposedly makes another "generous" take-it-or-leave-it offer that no reasonable person could reject, we again aren't allowed to see the maps.

It's either possible to set borders or it is not. If it is, Netanyahu should dust off the maps of those two "generous" offers and use them as a starting point for negotiated final borders. (Barak continued negotiation, fruitfully, at Taba before he terminated negotiations due to Sharon's election. As you note, Olmert might have been able to negotiate a deal but he was in an even worse position than Barak to do so.) If it is not, Netanyahu is lying about maps he knew would be rejected by the Knesset in order to blame others for his refusal to negotiate for peace. Actually, as you point out, either way Netanyahu is lying.

Wasn't Dan Meridor the guy who, in response to world criticism of high levels of injury to children during the second Intifada, came up with the anti-Palestinian propaganda line that they were using their children as human shields?

I think that what is being done in terms of the Middle East peace process is not unlike turning the running of a mental hospital over to its inmates.
These people cannot make peace for the very simple reason that they are
locked inside a situation that has, time and time again, clearly
demonstrated their inability to do so. They are all prisoners of the system; they are not the arbiters of their fate but the unfortunate recipients of a 63 year-old legacy passed down to them by others equally unable to transcend the circumstances in which they found themselves.

What does this mean, apart from being just one more pessimistic observation on the past, present and future of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

It means that, without outside help on this matter; help of a very specific and targeted nature, no possibility exists of extricating many millions of people from an already bad situation, one more than likely to be made increasingly worse by the passage of time.

It also means that the American taxpayer, the European taxpayer and whosoever else is having to 'contribute' financially to both sides of the argument, must carry on funding matters until...when?
Hell freezing over may be one scenario to keep in mind.

The very best way out of this impasse is to end it quickly, fairly and objectively.
That requires a rewrite of the present rule book and the will and determination
to expect new codes of conduct from everyone concerned and to hold transgressors to account should the occasion arise.

The concept, in principle, is not as difficult as might first be thought.

As a practical proposition, this process has the merits of simplicity, clarity and
a welcome degree of finality. It may also appear somewhat arcane and devious but, if that's what it takes to close down this madhouse, then so be it.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)