When Condi Did Peace Processing

Is it possible that many American journalists and pundits are suffering from short-term memory loss? That may be the only explanation for the I-Can't-Believe-It-Happened reactions in the media to the "revelations" contained in former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's memoir about former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "secret" offer in 2008 to establish a Palestinian State, including an agreement to divide Jerusalem and to allow 5,000 Palestinian refugees to re-settle in Israel.

The major elements of Olmert's offer have already been described early this year in Olmert's memoirs, in a long article by Bernard Avishai in the New York Times magazine as well as in internal Palestinian documents leaked to Al Jazeera.

These and similar reports suggested that the two sides may have been close to reaching a final-status agreement and that "if only" Olmert's political career had not come to a swift end (following police investigation of corruption charges), Israelis and Palestinians would be on the road to concluding a peace accord by now.

Rice tries to place herself at the center of this narrative by creating the impression that under her leadership the Bush Administration played an active role in bringing back to life the dormant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the peace conference in Annapolis in 2007 and in producing a diplomatic momentum that helped propel Olmert's initiative, and that both President George W. Bush and Rice made serous attempts to exploit the opportunities for peace provided by the Israeli Prime Minister's plan.

This spin seems to be part of a concerted effort by Rice to counter the criticism that during the eight years during which she helped set U.S. policy in the Middle East (first as the National Security Advisor to the president, and later as Bush's Secretary of State) she had placed Arab-Israeli peace on the bottom of Washington's foreign policy priorities and that combined with her role in the Iraq War fiasco, she should be held responsible for diminishing U.S. influence in the region.

Ironically, Rice with the help of her cheerleaders in the American media seems to be blaming President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team for failing to pick-up the torch of Palestinian-Israeli peace processing from her and for picking up instead a fight with the Israeli government by pressing it to freeze the establishment of Jewish settlements in the occupied Jewish territories. Nice spin if you can sell it.

Rice, a Sovietologst by training, like a deer caught in the Middle Eastern headlights describes herself as stunned when Olmert during a meeting in Jerusalem in 2008 presented the outlines of his plan. "Am I really hearing this?" she writes in No Higher Honor.

Yet the notion that an ardent Zionist like Olmert was willing to advance a peace plan that was based on setting the borders between Israel and Palestine along the 1967 cease-fire lines together with mutually-agreed swaps should not have come as a huge surprise to anyone who was following events in the Middle East at the time.

In a way, Olmert's plan involved a recycling of the ideas included in the so-called Clinton Parameters which were regarded by the leaders of the Kadima Party -- an off-shoot of the Likud Party to which Olmert and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon belonged -- as a realistic basis for any viable Israeli-Palestinian accord. So in essence what the Bush Administration did during its last year in office was to join the then Israeli government in embracing the diplomatic parameters in President Clinton's old plan -- which did not amount to a profile in ingenuity or courage.

And this was the same Bush Administration that had wasted eight years trying to "remake" the Middle East while putting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the policy backburner, with its officials declaring that the road to Jerusalem led through Baghdad.

Also let us not forget one of the main reasons that the Israeli-Palestinian talks have been deadlocked for so long: The decision by the Bush Administration -- as part of its proclaimed Freedom Agenda -- to hold free parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006 that helped to bring Hamas into power, setting in motion a series of events -- the military conformation between Hamas the more secular Fatah and the establishment of a Hamas-led mini-state in the Gaza Strip that remains at war with Israel -- that are responsible for much of the current Israeli-Palestinian mess.

Even more ridiculous than the self-congratulatory tone of Rice's recollections of her role as a peace processor is the criticism directed at the Obama Administration for supposedly failing to continue pursuing his predecessor's creative Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. In fact, Obama elevated the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the top of his policy agenda and like his predecessor seemed to be operating based on the Clinton Parameters. Hence, his support for a peace agreement based on setting the borders between Israel and Palestine along the 1967 cease-fire lines together with a mutually-agreed swap of land has been blasted by Republicans as "anti-Israeli."

The fact is that even if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had accepted the Olmert Plan (which he did not), there was no chance that the newly elected Israeli Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu would do so. Obama's call for Israel to accept a temporary halt in the buildup of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as a part of an effort to revive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks made a lot of sense but was rejected by Netanyahu. But then Netanyahu would not have agreed under any conditions to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of his predecessor's plan.

But the focus on the Clinton Parameters repackaged as Olmert's plan suggest that partitioning the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is not a mission impossible. The idea of land swaps would allow Israel to maintain control over large settlements in the West Bank in exchange for Israeli territory that would be transferred to the Palestinians could probably win the support of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians.

At the same time, reaching Israeli-Palestinian agreement on security would be difficult but attainable, especially in the context of wider regional arrangements backed by the Arab League that could be backed but outside powers, like NATO.

But the main reason why no serious movement towards Israeli-Palestinian peace is going to happen any time soon has to do with two so-called core existential issues that continue to separate Jews and Arabs and that the ideas proposed by Clinton or Olmert were not able to resolve: The religious sites in Jerusalem and the Palestinian "Right of Return."

It is important to emphasize that resolving the territorial dispute over Jerusalem is manageable, with the areas of the city with a Jewish majority becoming the capital of Israel while the Arab neighborhoods constituting the capital of the Palestinian state.

The two sides, however, have failed to even come close to an agreement on the future of the area known in Judaism as the Temple Mount, and in Islam as the Haram Ash-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) where the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located, and the surrounding Old City of Jerusalem. The Palestinians have demanded exclusive sovereignty over the holy sites and the Old City while all the Israelis have been willing to accept is some sort of Palestinian administrative control over the Temple Mount and parts of the Old City. The issue has acquired a semblance of zero-sum-game, making it impossible to develop a formula that would be accepted to most conciliatory figures on either side.

Similarly, notwithstanding some efforts to square the circle over the issue of the Right of Return, it is difficult to imagine even the most moderate Palestinian leadership agreeing to give-up the Right of Return in exchange for a financial package to help settle the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank (and elsewhere) and for allowing a few thousand Palestinian refugees to re-settle in Israel.

It is possible to imagine an alternate universe in which Israel would agree to allow the Palestinians to maintain complete sovereignty in the holy sites and the Old City (excluding the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter) in exchange for a Palestinian agreement to renounce the principle of the Right of Return. But in the real world that is not going to happen anytime soon, Instead, Israelis and Palestinians should try to use the Clinton Parameters as a basis for a long-term coexistence agreement -- a la the Sino-American agreement over Taiwan -- and postpone the resolution of the two core existential issues -- Jerusalem's holy sites and the Right of the Return -- to the distant future.