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This article is reprinted from Jewish Ideas Daily.
“The Peace Plan that Almost Was and Still Could Be”: blazoned over the entire cover of the February 13 New York Times Magazine, the sensation-seeking headline comes accompanied by a photograph from the back of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, each with his arm around the other. The two men, declares the Times excitedly, “almost made a historic deal in 2008,” and now—right now—”is the moment to resuscitate it.”
The article within, by Bernard Avishai, follows closely on a news story that appeared in the Times as a front-page “scoop” on January 27. In that story, written by the paper’s Israel correspondent Ethan Bronner, readers had early word of just how tantalizingly “close to a peace deal” Olmert and Abbas had been toward the end of 2008, only to have the deal put on hold because of Olmert’s legal problems and the start of the Gaza war. According to Bronner, progress toward peace was then finally stopped in its tracks by the election in early 2009 of a new hard-line Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bronner’s account was itself based on an interview with Olmert (and a similar one with President Abbas) that had been conducted for the Times by the same Bernard Avishai—a freelance writer, peace activist, and proponent of transforming Israel from a Jewish state into a secular “Hebrew republic.” It is Avishai’s own 4,700-word account of the Olmert-Abbas negotiations that has now, complete with illustrations and maps, been sprawled across several pages of the Times Magazine. Thus, within a period of two weeks, the paper has twice put its weight behind pieces of copycat journalism that, by coincidence, happen to fortify its own editorial position on which party is most responsible for the Israel-Palestinian impasse and how best to resolve it.
As Avishai’s is intended to be the fuller and more “authoritative” account, let us focus on his telling of the story. According to him, both Olmert and Abbas have separately confirmed that they did indeed meet many times in 2007 and 2008—and that the critical breakthrough toward a peace agreement and a two-state solution came on September 16, 2008. On that day, at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Olmert presented Abbas with a large map showing how Israel could retain 6.3 percent of Palestinian land on the West Bank and thus avoid evacuating most of the Jewish settlements. To compensate, Olmert proposed transferring an equivalent amount of Israeli land to the future Palestinian state. He also agreed to divide the city of Jerusalem, with a five-nation consortium controlling the Old City and the Jewish and Muslim holy places. For their part, the Palestinians would have to drop their historic demand for the “right of return” to Israel of the 1948 refugees and their descendants—although Olmert offered to admit 5,000 refugees over five years on “humanitarian” grounds.
As for Olmert’s map, Abbas assured the Israeli prime minister that it was worthy of study and further negotiations, and the two men parted on that note. But then, according to Olmert, Abbas “went silent” on him—although discussions with the Palestinians continued at a lower level until the election of Netanyahu tragically turned the clock back. Abbas’s version of the same events is that Olmert, distracted by the corruption charges being brought against him and by the pending Gaza war, failed to send a representative to a meeting in Washington called by Condoleezza Rice, but that he, Abbas, had been ready to resume talks anyway, even after Israel invaded Gaza.
And what is the urgency in publishing such an article now? As Avishai puts it, the further passage of time, together with the current turmoil in the Arab Middle East, has raised the breakthrough possibility of reviving those talks, abandoned just at the moment when “the gaps appear[ed] so pitifully small.” In self-aggrandizing mode, Avishai touts his “exclusive” revelations as themselves constituting a new opportunity for peace—particularly, he pointedly adds, if President Obama now steps into the breach, picks up where the Israelis and Palestinians left off more than two years ago, and with the aid of the international community pushes through a deal that Israel has no choice but to accept. Otherwise, Avishai quotes a frustrated Abbas as saying, “If nothing happens, I will take a very, very painful decision. Don’t ask me about it.”
There are only two problems with Avishai’s narrative and the conclusions he draws from it. One is that what’s true in the material the Times has published twice in as many weeks isn’t new; the other is that what’s new isn’t true.
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