Not only is Avishai not the first journalist to reveal details about Olmert’s September 2008 offer to Abbas, he isn’t even the second or third. The first to report was Newsweek‘s Kevin Paraino, in June 2009. According to Paraino, Olmert told him about the map he had presented to Abbas the previous September, plus the offer to divide Jerusalem. Abbas, wrote Paraino, “studied the materials and began to formulate a response. . . . But time eventually ran out.”
Two months later, I published a separate account in City Journal of the Olmert-Abbas talks, based on an interview I conducted with Olmert in which he told me, too, about the September 16, 2008 meeting and about the map he had presented to Abbas, adding that Abbas had taken the map away with him (a detail missing from Avishai’s story) and then broken the promise he had made to return the following day for further discussions. A call did come from Abbas’s office saying that the PA president had forgotten an appointment in Amman with the Jordanian king but would return for more talks in the next days. According to Olmert, that was the last he ever heard from Abbas.
The third journalist to report on the Olmert-Abbas meeting was Aluf Benn, a respected reporter with the Hebrew daily Haaretz. In a story filed on December 17, 2009—and headlined as an “exclusive”—Benn provided all the details of Olmert’s September 2008 offer to Abbas. The newspaper also published the Olmert map detailing the proposed land swaps between Israel and the prospective Palestinian state.
Thus, contrary to the Times‘ assertion that Olmert has revealed exclusive new information to Avishai, it is abundantly clear that the former Israeli prime minister, widely despised at home and desperate to remain relevant, started blabbing about his negotiations with Abbas over a year and a half ago to anybody who would listen.
So much for what isn’t new. More egregious is what isn’t true. Among the many items to pick from here, the most significant concerns Avishai’s effort to create a plausible cover story absolving Abbas of responsibility for walking away from yet another ostensibly golden opportunity to win a Palestinian state—just as Yasir Arafat, Abbas’s predecessor, walked away from Bill Clinton’s offer of a state at the 2000 Camp David talks, and at a similar moment when the two sides were supposedly within an inch of an agreement. Without any qualification, Avishai simply accepts at face value Abbas’s transparently self-serving claim that the reasons the negotiation with Olmert didn’t continue after September 2008 were the start of the Gaza war and his good friend Olmert’s preoccupation with his legal troubles. In other words, it was Israel’s fault.
This is pure hokum. A war with Gaza wasn’t on the Israeli government’s horizon for more than three months after the final Olmert-Abbas meeting. Moreover, Olmert’s pending legal problems would have made the prime minister more, rather than less, eager to bolster his reputation by laying the foundations of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In actuality, there is only one plausible reason for Abbas’s failure to return to discuss the issue of borders. It is that the PA president could not and cannot ever allow himself to announce to the Palestinian refugees and their myriad descendants that their 60-year-old dream of returning to their homes in Israel is over.
It must be added that, in whitewashing Abbas’s irresponsibility in walking away from Olmert’s unprecedented and quite breathtaking offers, Avishai has an accomplice. That is Ehud Olmert himself, who has now completely changed his version of the events being described. Avishai quotes Olmert as saying “We were very close, more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians.”
“We” were very close? For whatever reasons that now suit Olmert’s personal purposes, this is completely contrary to his statement to me in 2009 that he was dismayed by Abbas’s decision to break off negotiations and go silent—an obvious sign that Abbas was nowhere near close to a deal, let alone very close. Nor, I suspect, did Olmert say anything about being close to an agreement in his interviews with Newsweek and Haaretz. If he had, surely those publications would have found it newsworthy to print an Israeli prime minister’s confirmation of his Palestinian counterpart’s commitment to peace.
Now the Times has made up for the lack by letting Abbas lay the blame on Israel’s present government, thus tacitly endorsing the paper’s own spin on the peace process. It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. Delusions of “peace,” it seems, can have a similarly debilitating effect on political leaders, the journalists who write about them, and the editors of influential newspapers.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute.
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