For the past few months, it feels like everyday I see on the news of a violent incident between Israelis and Palestinians. In light of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations between 2006-2008, I felt compelled to write this article to help cease the violence and restart the peace process. However, I have heard distorted accusations against both sides.
Several weeks ago, I saw numerous headlines on my news feed saying that Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) “rejected” former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer for a two-state solution. I’ve also heard Israeli critics say that the two-state solution is “dead” because of Israel’s settlement expansion
Neither of these accusations are entirely true. So if we are going to stop the violence and jumpstart the peace process, both accusations need to be debunked.
But first, a few crucial questions must be answered in regard to the negotiations between Abu Mazen and Olmert.
How was there a diplomatic breakthrough between the Israelis and Palestinians between 2006-2008?
We saw a boost in economic growth in the Palestinian Territories.
Why is economic growth in the Palestinian Territories needed for their to be serious negotiations?
With a growing economy, the Palestinians (PA) had the political legitimacy to negotiate with Israel and make concessions. For Israel, a growing Palestinian economy reassured them that giving up the West Bank would not lead to the collapse of the PA and turn into a territory filled with non-state military actors.
Furthermore, economic growth in the territories helps decrease Palestinian violence. Thus, the Palestinian economy needs to improve if today’s violence is going to stop.
How did the economy grow?
Palestinian corruption decreased and more state-institutions and infrastructures were built, mainly thanks to Salaam Fayyad. Elected as the PA’s prime minister in 2007, Fayyad cracked down on corruption and helped build state-institutions and infrastructure. In fact, during his 6 years as prime minister, the Palestinian economy grew 222% percent.
Israeli checkpoints and other restrictions were also uplifted. Israeli restrictions between Palestinian areas cause trade, for example, to take longer and become more expensive. So with less restrictions, trade became faster and cheaper.
After listening to a lecture in Jerusalem last spring, I learned that the reason why Israel uplifted checkpoints during that time is because the PA security forces’ competence improved. In the wake of the 2nd Intifada, the PA security forces (who cooperate with Israel) went through an intense training process at a US army base in Amman, Jordan. Therefore, Israel had more trust in them to secure their areas on their own.
The Two-State Solution is ‘Dead’:
Shifting to the issue of Israeli settlements, it’s true that they hurt the peace process, but the two-state solution is not “dead.” There are three settlement “blocks,” Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, (settlements adjacent to Israel’s borders) that hold the vast majority of settlers. Olmert proposed Israel annex these three settlements in exchange for Israeli territory. With such land swaps, Israel would only have to withdraw about 100,000 settlers opposed to 350,000.
Abbas ‘Rejected’ Olmert’s Offer:
It is true that Abu Mazen did not accept Olmert’s offer for a two-state deal. The main points of his offer included the following:
- Annex 6.3% of the West Bank in exchange for 5.8% of land in northern Israel, southern Israel in the desert, and some farmland outside of Gaza.
- “A safe passage in a tunnel between Gaza and the West Bank that was equivalent in territory of the remaining half percent.”
- The holy sights in Jerusalem, such as the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, would be jointly administered by Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
- 5,000 Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return within Israel proper. (1,000 each year).
- Additionally, Israel would make an official acknowledgement that the 1948 war caused the suffering of many refugees, though Israel would not accept primary responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to take credit away from Olmert for his efforts. This it is not an unreasonable offer to go off of, but Abu Mazen did not straight up reject it. There were a few things holding him back.
On the night Olmert presented Abu Mazen with his offer, September 16, 2008, Olmert did not allow him to take the map unless he signed his initials on it. Abu Mazen couldn’t have signed something he didn’t go over thoroughly and, though some members of his negotiating team were there, he had not consulted with the rest of his colleagues yet. Instead, he had to draw the proposed borders on a napkin from memory and arranged a meeting between Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and Israeli negotiators Tzvini Lipni and Shalom Turgeman to give an answer the next day.
He drew the settlements that Israel would keep and land that Israel would give in return, but because Abu Mazen had to do it from memory, he incorrectly wrote the territorial swaps as 6.8 for 5.5 percent, so it did not seem as generous. Their meeting was also cancelled the next day because Abu Mazen had to consult with Jordan to see if they offered their blessings for the deal.
The negotiations continued for another three months until Olmert’s situation worsened with his corruption scandal and Hamas launched rockets into southern Israel provoking Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which essentially ended the peace process.
Within the final three months of negotiations, there were a few gaps between the parties that prevented them from finalizing a deal, especially over refugees and land swaps.
Olmert offered to absorb 5,000 Palestinian refugees within Israel over 5 years. Peter Beinart (a scholar on the Israel-Palestine conflict) says that there have been reports suggesting that Abu Mazen requested Israel take in up to 150,000 since the refugees had grown over the years and needed to be accommodated if there wasn’t going to be a Palestinian Right of Return.
Moreover, they did not seem to come to an agreement on a compensation package for the Palestinian refugees who wouldn’t be allowed to return. When listening to a lecture in DC in the summer of 2014, I learned that one of the main issues Abu Mazen did not get a chance to look over, because Olmert wouldn’t let him have the papers, was what the compensation package would be for the Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon.
The Palestinians were not completely satisfied with Olmert’s land swaps. Its true that it was about a 1:1 ratio, but it still may have impaired the contingency of the Palestinian state. The settlement Ariel, one of the blocks Olmert wanted to annex, was of particular concern. In his book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart describes how Ariel bisects 13 miles into the West Bank, cutting off two major Palestinian population centers, Nablus and Ramallah.
During my time in the Palestinian Territories over the summer, I took a bus through the route and saw how all the Palestinian cars have to wait in a line before entering or exiting either city. That is why Abu Mazen came in with a counter-offer within the last three months, which included a 1.9% for 1.1% exchange of territory so Palestine would have more contingency.
Now, the purpose of this article was not to overlook the settlements or to put the blame on Olmert. The settlements are an issue and Olmert proved that Israel has incentives to give the Palestinians a state. Rather, it was to clear the air that the two-state solution is still viable and the Palestinians have shown a willingness to negotiate. Additionally, there are things we can take away from the negotiations between 2006-2008 on how to stop today’s violence.
If we are going to an end the current wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and resume negotiations then we have to see economic growth in the Palestinian Territories. As we observed during Olmert and Abu Mazen’s talks, a strong Palestinian economy is how to decrease violence and get both sides to commit to serious negotiations.
The way to do this is to push the Palestinian leaders to crack down on corruption and build more state-institutions and infrastructure for employment. Israel also needs to make economic concessions to give the Palestinians the viability and capacity they need for state-building. Doing so will help the economy grow, reduce violence and reignite the peace process.