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The Generous Offer that Never Was

Maps of Israeli Offers at Camp David and Taba, Le Monde Diplo (as interpreted by Jan de Jong, Palestinian cartographer for Orient House).
Maps of Israeli Offers at Camp David and Taba, Le Monde Diplo (as interpreted by Jan de Jong, Palestinian cartographer for Orient House).

One of the most contentious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the question of the ‘generous offer’. A major part of Israel’s narrative has been that the Palestinians were offered a state and a solution on the refugee issue that broadly met their needs, and that they turned down every offer due to intransigence or a reluctance to recognise the legitimacy of the State of Israel.

While the Palestinians have made more strategic blunders in the history of the peace process than I can imagine, in this post, I want to make one point clear: there was never an offer made by an Israeli government that would prove acceptable. When there were realistic proposals, they were made by governments on their deathbeds that had zero legitimacy to negotiate. When there were governments with political capital, the Palestinians were presented with berserk notions of a quasi-state that would simply translate to a prolonged occupation.

To begin with, let’s ask ourselves what reasonable Palestinians want. Not Hamas or some radical associated with the Lion’s Den, but what intellectuals like Sari Nusseibeh or Palestinian negotiator for the Geneva Initiative Yasser Abed-Rabbo wished. The answer was simple: compensation for refugees, a rehabilitation programme for refugees that would see some admitted to Israel, and a state on 100% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The latter is what UN Security Council Resolution 242 offers them. But for ‘minor and mutual modifications’, as 242 author Lord Caradon expressed, territory acquired by war would be inadmissible, as the preamble to 242 explicitly states. Israel only ever adhered to these positions at Taba and at the end of the Annapolis process, but never before. Let us look at the historical record.

When Tactics Go Too Far: Camp David and Taba

Going into the Camp David summit, the sentiments I expressed above were known to the Israelis. Israeli Military Intelligence analysts Amos Malta and Amos Gilead expressly warned Ehud Barak that the Palestinians sought well over 95% of the West Bank, a capital in East Jerusalem, and a mutually agreed solution on refugees that would see several thousands admitted into Israel. Though the Palestinians would harden their line on the refugee issue, none of this was new to the negotiators. Abed-Rabbo had told Israeli negotiator Oded Eran during talks in Maryland (March 2000) and Eilat (May 2000) that the Palestinians sought a 4% equal territorial exchange and a ‘few thousands’ of refugees to be admitted to Israel each year. Dennis Ross himself, no great Palestinian ally, notes that in a private conversation over dinner in June 2000, Saeb Erekat wanted an equal swap with a capital in East Jerusalem and a ‘right of return’ with reference to General Assembly Resolution 194 that would be based on any number Israel chose.

But at Camp David, the Palestinians were initially presented with a map wherein Israel offered a state on 77% of the West Bank with an additional 10% to be gradually given over many years. These were all tactics: Barak wanted to pull the Palestinian negotiating position closer to his own. While this made sense given that, officially, the Palestinians demanded a right of return and a strict adherence to the 1967 line, starting from a position so far away from what Israel knew to be the Palestinians’ bottom line was foolish. On Jerusalem, Barak did courageously break his old taboo by offering the Palestinians sovereignty in the Christian and Muslim Quarters of the Old City and a trusteeship on Temple Mount. But he also insisted on keeping under Israeli control most of the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, leaving the Palestinians with a few impoverished outlying suburbs like Beit Hanina and Abu Dis.

The final offer at Camp David is roughly as follows: (1) 91-92% of the West Bank plus 1-2% of equivalent land in Israel proper; (2) family reunification as a solution for the refugee problem; and (3) Palestinian trusteeship on Temple Mount with Israel retaining sovereignty; and (4) Jerusalem as a shared capital, with Palestinian sovereignty in the outer neighbourhoods only. This was itself a tactic to draw the Palestinians to counter-offer with something reasonable. But decades of conflict cannot be solved in two weeks in the enchanted woods of Maryland, and the Israeli proposal came too late.

The tragedy of Camp David led to the al-Aqsa Intifada. Arafat was widely blamed for rejecting a generous offer (though this was in part because Israel trumpeted claims it offered 95% of the West Bank, which never happened) and to rally domestic support, he undoubtedly found Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount to be a convenient excuse. For this, he has zero excuse; the Palestinians could not and should not have used violence as a means of drawing concessions, especially when they faced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike a major peace deal with Israel. And in truth, this killed the Barak government: by the time the Taba summit occurred, the Prime Minister was, to use the technical term, a dead man walking.

At Taba, the reasonable offer finally came. Israel put on the table 97% of the West Bank (initially 94% plus 3% in swaps, later 95% pus 2% in swaps) with the remaining 3% compensated through the West Bank-Gaza safe passage and access to Israeli assets such as the Port of Ashdod. On refugees, the Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin offered 40,000 admissions over five years, which in the scheme of a fifteen-year admission period would have translated to anywhere from 80-120,000 refugee admissions to Israel. Barak, however, denies that Beilin’s offers had any validity. The Palestinians made a fatal blunder of rejecting these packages, but in any case, it made little difference. Ariel Sharon was more than 20% ahead and if the Palestinians accepted the Taba offer but Sharon rejected it, they risked starting future negotiations substantially behind.

In any case, for Israel to claim it was being especially magnanimous in Taba with the aim of striking a final deal is somewhat puzzling given two realities. First, the country was just two weeks away from elections and there was no guarantee that a deal involving the concessions defined in Taba would be acceptable. Second and more importantly, though, Barak and many around him did not wish for the Taba talks to even take place. Many in the cabinet, including Jerusalem Minister Haim Ramon, referred to the negotiations as ‘immoral’. Barak only proceeded to the talks because Yossi Sarid and the Meretz Party threatened to take their 10 Members of Knesset away to support a Shimon Peres candidacy (and opinion polls found if Peres were the candidate, Barak would drop to a humiliating third-place finish in Prime Ministerial elections).

Annapolis, 2008: First as Tragedy, then as Farce

Fast forward to November 2007. The Israeli government strategy of actually trying to unilaterally leave the Palestinians to their own state in Gaza and the West Bank without negotiations has exploded in the Olmert government’s face with the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Olmert then tries to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, starting with the Annapolis summit in November. The talks are to occur on three tracks:
(1) Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Major General Udi Dekel are to hold talks with Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Abu Ala, with more detailed negotiations occurring through a series of committees.
(2) Prime Minister Olmert is to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas twice weekly
(3) Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon is to hold an entirely secret dialogue with Yasser Abed-Rabbo over the questions of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugeeism.

On the first track, the talks are meaningless to the point of farcical. Most of their meeting minutes are available in the so-called ‘Palestine Papers’ trove obtained by The Guardian and Al Jazeera. But there is generally little progress here: Livni refuses any refugee admission to Israel, does not discuss Jerusalem, and asks for an unequal land swap with Israel annexing 7.3% of the West Bank. The Palestinians want Israel to absorb anywhere from 100-150,000 refugees and an equal land swap of 1.9%. Neither side has enough trust in the other to move from their positions over nearly one full year of non-stop negotiations. Most progress is made on the other two tracks. Olmert offers a 6.5% equal swap (including 0.7% for the safe corridor from the West Bank to Gaza, though this would remain under Israeli sovereignty), a capital in East Jerusalem, and an international consortium that would include Israel and Palestine to govern the Old City and the Holy Basin. On refugees, though Olmert only speaks of 1,000 admissions to Israel each year over a five-to-ten year period, in the Ramon-Abed-Rabbo talks, the offer is for as many as 100,000 refugees.

But none of this mattered after Olmert’s resignation in August 2008. The negotiations with Olmert had only produced a skeletal outline of a package offer to the Palestinians, and there was nowhere near enough time to actually draw out a framework treaty let alone a comprehensive agreement that would run into hundreds of pages. Livni had neither sufficient trust among the Palestinians nor the legitimacy without the premiership to negotiate on Olmert’s behalf, and any deal signed off by an indicted Prime Minister would be politically toxic. Haim Ramon didn’t have such authority either, with his reputation stained by accusations of sexual harassment. It was clear that if it did not form government in 2009, the Kadima Party was going to fall apart, and to nobody’s surprise, this is exactly what happened.

There Was No Offer Acceptable

The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that package offers for permanent status agreements were only really there for tantalisingly brief moments, and even then, the Israeli governments that made such offers were only weeks away from being given the boot. This is partly the result of Israel’s own dysfunctional political apparatus, but also because both Israelis and Palestinians made serious blunders. The latter failed to actually put concrete proposals on the table, but as former Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami points out, it is because they were on the weaker end of the bargaining table, with few assets or ‘deliverables’ to Israel. During the Annapolis round, both parties could and should have started off where they left off in Taba. But all this is beyond the point: the reality is there was never an offer made by an Israeli government that was in a position to sign off on a peace accord. Those that were (Barak earlier in his premiership, Olmert before the second Lebanon war, and indeed Netanyahu throughout his premiership) either made outlandish and unacceptable offers or, as we have seen from Bibi, were not willing to make peace in the first place.

About the Author
Priyankar Kandarpa is an ardent supporter of Israel's existence as a secure, moral, democratic state to fulfill the original mission of Zionists to ensure the Jewish people a truly recognized, legitimate place among the nations. He closely researches matters regarding the so-called 'Permanent Status' issues and the history of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He studies History and Politics at the University of Oxford.
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