The formula for a territorial compromise floated by Obama on Thursday — the pre-1967 borders with some minor negotiated land swaps — has generated a fair amount of controversy.  As I pointed out, while such a deal may not be far off from where the parties end up, placing that marker without requiring any concessions by the Palestinians was contrary to prior U.S. policy and counterproductive.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who I criticized for his indignation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu used the word “expect” with regard to the U.S. honoring prior commitments, points to a proposal from then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 which included the pre-1967 borders plus land swaps.  To Goldberg, this shows that criticisms of Obama are unjustified, but in fact it proves just the opposite.

It is clear that Olmert put forth the proposal not as a formal offer, but was floating the idea to see where the Palestinians stood.  This is a common negotiating device; if you know you are going to have a hard sell with your own side, you don’t want to go there if it is a non-starter with your opponent.

Olmert described the proposal and the Palestinians reaction in a 2009 interview.  While the proposal did include a territorial aspect, with Israel retaining about 6% of the West Bank in return for land from Israel (presumably in the Negev desert), the proposal also included a resolution of other issues such as Jerusalem (Palestinian sovereignty over part of the city), refugees (to be settled in the West Bank with very limited humanitarian resettlement in Israel), and security guarantees. 

This was a package which would have settled the conflict once and for all; the territorial concessions did not stand alone and were not the starting point but the end point.

But the key thing is that the Palestinians, including Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), walked away from what Olmert told them was the best deal they would ever get and one they would not see again for another 50 years:

“He (Abbas) promised me the next day his adviser would come. But the next day Saeb Erekat rang my adviser and said we forgot we are going to Amman today, let’s make it next week. I never saw him again.”

Olmert believes that, like Camp David a decade earlier, this was an enormous opportunity lost: “I said `this is the offer. Sign it and we can immediately get support from America, from Europe, from all over the world’. I told him (Abbas) he’d never get anything like this again from an Israeli leader for 50 years. I said to him, `do you want to keep floating forever – like an astronaut in space – or do you want a state?’

“To this day we should ask Abu Mazen to respond to this plan. If they (the Palestinians) say no, there’s no point negotiating.”

Olmert is right to paint this offer as embodying the most extensive concessions, and the best deal, ever offered to the Palestinians by an Israeli leader. But his very experience with this offer raises several questions. Could he have delivered its terms if the Palestinians had accepted it? Perhaps international momentum would have enabled him to do so, and, in fact, Olmert’s Kadima party did remarkably well in the election which followed his prime ministership. Could any Israeli government today realistically make such an offer? The answer would seem to be no.

So rather than proving the wisdom of Obama’s Middle East speech, this history proves the essential misunderstanding of the problem.  Putting the 1967 borders on the table as the starting point with no other concessions emboldens the Palestinians to wait, because the deal will get better.

The problem is not that Israel is not willing to trade land for peace — even more land than anyone is willing to say in public — it is that the Palestinians want the land but not the peace.

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