Ben-Dror Yemini argues that media, academia, and the Israeli and global left have committed a huge deception in hiding the fact that the Palestinians have consistently rejected every serious Israeli peace offer. While Israel has also made mistakes, when it comes to the failure of the peace process in recent decades, the Palestinian responsibility is much greater.
For decades, many people, for good and bad, have been spreading the narrative that if only Israel would be a little more generous, and if only the Americans brokered a serious peace agreement, peace was within reach. For the bad, this stems from the desire to blame Israel for all world crimes. For the good, this is due to a sincere and genuine desire for peace, mixed with a lack of knowledge, or reluctance to know, or self-deception of those who struggle to reconcile the gap between beliefs and desires on the one hand and facts on the other.
This is not the place to review the details of historical rejectionism, starting from the 1937 Peel Commission’s partition offer, continuing with the 1947 UN partition plan, nor the three ‘No-s’ immediately after the Six-Day War in 1967. The current era is more important. The most important peace initiatives in recent decades have been those of Bill Clinton in 2000, Saudi Arabia in 2002, Ehud Olmert in 2008, and John Kerry and Barack Obama in 2014. On each occasion Palestinian rejectionism has stood on the issue of the ‘right of return’ of the Palestinian refugees.
The Clinton Parameters
After the failure of Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat asked Clinton to present a peace plan. It was indeed presented to the parties on 23 December 2000. The plan granted the Palestinians a state on about 95 per cent of the territories, division of Jerusalem and a solution to the refugee problem by an international fund, with a limited right of return, (at least in the original offer). After four days, the Israeli government decided to approve the parameters, presenting reservations that did not contradict the parameters themselves. Arafat came to Washington, and before leaving for the White House, he met with the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Bandar Bin Sultan, who informed him of the Arab countries’ consent and urged him to say yes to the parameters. ‘If you say no, it won’t be a tragedy,’ Bandar told him, ‘It would be a crime.’
Arafat committed both tragedy and crime. He said no. Bin Sultan repeated his version in in a lengthy interview with Al-Arabiya in 2020. Martin Indyk confirmed this version of events in a series of tweets immediately after that interview.
There is another narrative that says Bill Clinton, on page 944 of his book, My Life, wrote that Israel also refused his parameters. I went back to page 944. It uses these words: ‘The refusal of Arafat’s offer for my parameters, following Barak’s consent, was an error of historical proportions.’ In fact, Clinton’s testimony is unnecessary. The official response document of the Palestinian Authority states: ‘We cannot, however, accept an offer that secures neither the establishment of a viable Palestinian state nor the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.’ It’s pretty clear. But various ‘commentators’ obfuscate the truth, aiming to create the impression that Israel did not say yes and the Palestinians did not say no.
Even before Prime Minister Olmert submitted his offer, the Annapolis Conference took place (2007-2008). In an article, Udi Dekel, who was part of the negotiation team at the conference, claimed Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was willing to agree to the return of only 80,000 refugees. This is certainly a remarkable compromise, if the Palestinians would indeed have adopted this stance. But later on, the opposite happened. Olmert’s 2008 offer gave the Palestinians a plan similar to Clinton’s, and more generous than what was offered in Annapolis, with the addition of a symbolic right of return. In Condoleezza Rice’s book, No Higher Honor, she admits she was astonished when she first heard the details of Olmert’s generous offer, and was even more astonished the next day, when she heard the complete rejection of the offer, by Abu Mazen, who also explained: ‘I cannot tell four million Palestinians that they have no right of return.’ In an interview given by Abu Mazen on 29 May 2009 to Dixon Hill in the Washington Post, the Palestinian leader clarified that Olmert’s offer was rejected because ‘the gaps were too wide,’ and mainly because the Palestinians wanted more, especially mass refugee return. Here and there, Abu Mazen tried to deny Rice and Hill’s remarks. They both made it clear that the words had been said. Erekat made a similar admission in an interview with Jordanian Al-Dustour on 26 July 2000. That’s not all. The counter-narrative suggests that Israel undercut the process – that ‘Tzipi Livni suggested that the Palestinians wait with Olmert, because he is a lame duck at the end of his premiership,’ or that Israel did not send Olmert’s assistant, Shalom Turgeman, to the meeting. Well, Abu Mazen himself, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat dated 20 December 2009, admitted that ‘Olmert offered us 100 per cent’ and that ‘Tzipi Livni did not intervene.’ Abu Mazen refused Olmert’s offer, but not for the reasons others subsequently put in his mouth. In an interview with Israeli TV Channel 10, Abu Mazen reiterated that he had rejected the offer, and made it clear that the refusal had nothing to do with the investigations which would soon bring Olmert down.
Following the leak of thousands of documents (the ‘Palestine Papers’) that dealt with the negotiations during those years, one study reveals that the Palestinians adopted an uncompromising stance regarding the ‘right of return’, and another study reveals a negative position on Olmert’s offer. To avoid any doubt, at the end of 2010, Erekat himself published an article in the Guardian, in which he clarifies that the main principle was the ‘right of return.’ This is not how to promote a fair settlement of ‘two states for two peoples’. This is how to eliminate it.
The obfuscation, (which reaches the level of deception), that the Palestinians did not refuse actually came from Olmert himself. On 2 September 2011, Olmert published an article in the New York Times and presented a completely new version: Abu Mazen did not reject his offer. I actually had confrontations with Olmert on this issue. Do I know more than Olmert himself? Well, it’s not just the Palestinians who have repeatedly stated that they rejected the plan. Olmert forgot that on 17 July 2009, two years before his new version, he himself published an article in the Washington Post, stating: ‘The Palestinians have rejected my plan.’ It wasn’t his only remark in that spirit. Speaking at the Geneva Agreement Conference on 19 September 2010, Olmert said, ‘The Palestinian side was not willing to take the step that we took.’
Years have passed, and following the presentation of the Trump Plan, Abu Mazen appeared at a joint press conference with Olmert. He said there that he is ‘fully ready to resume negotiations where we left it with you.’ It was a slap in the face for Olmert. For him, Olmert’s concessions are only a starting point. Not a basis for an agreement between the parties.
From late 2013 to March 2014, John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, made supreme efforts to achieve peace. He presented an initial draft in January 2014 (which was leaked to the New York Times’ Tom Friedman). In retrospect, it turned out that Netanyahu had agreed to a plan that included a withdrawal from more than 90 per cent of the West Bank. Avigdor Lieberman, then Foreign Affairs Minister, declared in an interview with the Daily Telegraph dated 9 January 2014 that the ‘Peace Deal is best Israel can get.’ Four days later, on 13 January, Abu Mazen declared: ‘We will never waive the right of return.’ In doing so, he contradicted his somewhat more moderate past statements. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian figure, made it clear at the end of January that the American offer was unacceptable to the Palestinians. In February, a new draft was formulated. It was more generous, including a Palestinian capital city in East Jerusalem. It did not help. Abu Mazen arrived at the White House, together with Saeb Erekat. According to an investigative report by the New Republic, there was an explosion. The Palestinians, as usual, presented a complete refusal. Susan Rice, who was considered extremely close to the Palestinians, berated them: ‘You Palestinians are never able to see the bigger picture’. (We will spare the readers the juicy curse she added.)
In retrospect, it turned out based on documents leaked to Amir Tibon from Haaretz, that Netanyahu agreed in essence with Kerry’s first draft, but did not have time to respond to the second draft, following the Palestinian refusal. Martin Indyk, like Olmert before him, presented two versions of the Palestinian stance. However, in the original version he also confirmed that the Palestinian refusal had sabotaged the conference.
We can go on. There are other official announcements, materials exposed in the Palestine Papers, and always denials trying, unsuccessfully, to create the impression that the Palestinians wanted peace. In 2012, I was invited to attend a meeting with Nabil Shaath. A welcome initiative. It was a wonderful meeting. Up to that moment when I presented to Shaath what he himself said on 3 July 2011. ‘We will never accept the “two state for two peoples” formula to resolve the conflict.’ I asked him if he had changed his mind. He was evasive. I was no longer invited to the next meeting. Why should anyone bother the enthusiasts of illusion? As long as the Israeli and global left wing insists on ignoring facts, it does not promote peace. It serves Palestinian rejectionism. It’s bad for the Palestinians and it’s bad for Israel.
The deception also comes from researchers who are supposed to be a little more serious. Researcher Shaul Arieli published an article in Haaretz in which he claimed that both at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the Taba Summit in early 2001, ‘the Palestinians agreed to the non-realization of the right of return.’ In practice, the Palestinian Authority’s official and original document of response to the Clinton Parameters, dated 1 February 2001, uses these words: ‘We cannot accept an offer that does not guarantee the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.’ There was no progress in Taba either. The most accurate document about what happened in this summit is that of Miguel Moratinos, then ambassador of the European Union, who attended it as an observer. According to Moratinos, ‘the Palestinian side reiterated that the Palestinian refugees should receive the right of return to their homes according to their interpretation of Resolution 194.’ Either way, in Taba, the Palestinians submitted a position paper on the refugee issue, which included not only a demand for full return, but also compensation to the host countries, compensation in addition to the return itself, and other demands that prevented any chance of compromise. In the summaries presented by the parties after Taba, the Palestinians reiterated their uncompromising stances, which mean only one thing: denying the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
So it continued. Following the presentation of Trump’s Deal of the Century, Arieli claimed that ‘there is a Palestinian offer that allows for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, with security arrangements, with 80 per cent of the settlers remaining in Israeli territory, control of the Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and the Western Wall, and the refugees not returning into Israel.’ He added, ‘People throw things around without knowing the facts. Abu Mazen offered it in 2008 and it also appears in a booklet published in Hebrew, Arabic and English.’ I asked Arieli to show me the document. It turns out that he was referring to a document demanding the return of 15,000 refugees a year for ten years (renewable after with the agreement of the parties). Well, we must be precise. This document was not presented to Israel, but to the Europeans, and only in December 2009, when the negotiations with Olmert were already history. During the negotiations themselves, as revealed in the Palestine Papers, a demand was formulated for the return of 1,016,511 refugees. In any case, at that time both Abu Mazen and Erekat repeatedly admitted that not only did they reject Olmert’s offer, but that their demands were for a mass return. The booklet mentioned by Arieli was published in 2019 by the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, entitled The Palestinian Stance on Core Issues. There is no hint of a waiver of the right of return. There is a reference therein to the Arab Peace Initiative. Is this a serious peace initiative? Let us check.
The Saudi Arabian Peace Initiative versus the Arab Peace Initiative
In February 2002, journalist Thomas Friedman was invited to a meeting with Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince. He was presented with a Saudi Arabian peace initiative, which immediately received an article in the New York Times. The Saudi Arabian initiative was based on two main points: an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders in exchange for full normalisation with the Arab states. There was no mention of the return of refugees into Israel, nor UN General Assembly Resolution 194 – which according to the Arab interpretation includes the return of descendants of refugees into Israel – but only, according to Arab News, ‘a just solution to the refugee problem.’ The initiative made many waves and was supposed to become an all-Arab peace plan as part of the Arab Summit convened in Beirut in April 2002.
However, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon opposed the Saudi Arabian initiative. The senior Palestinian representative, Farouq Kaddoumi, made it clear that ‘the right of return of refugees to Jaffa and Haifa is more important than statehood’ (Fouad Ajami, March 29, 2000, WSJ). Lebanese President Emile Lahoud gave the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince an ultimatum: either the refugee issue is put into the initiative or I use my authority as the president of the summit and do not present it at all. The pressure worked. The Saudi king surrendered and the Saudi initiative was not approved. Instead came the Arab peace plan, including two new sections. The first is section 2.2, which includes Resolution 194, and the second, section 4, which is perhaps even more severe and denies the settlement of descendants of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. (In a 2014 interview Emil Lahoud described these events behind the scenes). Ehud Olmert made it clear, at a joint conference press with the UN Secretary General on 26 March 2017, that ‘The Arab initiative is not identical to the Saudi Arabian initiative’ adding that he was ‘more in favour of the Saudi Arabian initiative.’
Hence, the picture becomes clear: the Saudi Arabian peace initiative could have been the basis for a peace agreement. The Arab peace initiative, as presented to the UN by Lebanon, which includes the words of the Lebanese President and was accepted under pressure from the ‘Rejectionist Front’, cannot be the basis for a peace agreement.
Arafat recognises a Jewish state
In the late 1980s and 1990s, there were signs among some Palestinian leaders of a willingness to compromise on the basis of ‘two states for two peoples’, rather than simply the ‘two state solution’. Following pressure from US Secretary of State George Shultz, Yasser Arafat declared that ‘The Palestinian National Council has agreed to recognise two states, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state.’ The Palestinian National Council never passed a resolution that includes the words Jewish state. Altogether, Arafat’s statement was a noteworthy development. This is also the case for the 1995 draft of Beilin Abu Mazen Agreement, in which it was agreed that the Palestinian capital would be Abu Dis, and that there would be no exercise of a right of return into Israel. The 2002 Declaration of Principles, formulated by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, also included recognition that ‘Israel is the only state of the Jewish people.’ The Geneva Initiative also included a waiver of the ‘right of return’. But immediately after the Initiative was signed, the Palestinians who participated in the talks made it clear that they did not really intend to waive. In November 2012, Abu Mazen told Israeli TV that he personally did not intend to return to his hometown of Safed. A few days later, he was interviewed by Egyptian TV, and made it clear that this was by no means a waiver of the right of return.
The first signs of waiving the right of return could have paved the path for an agreement on the basis of ‘two states for two peoples’. But the Palestinian stance has become more and more extreme over the years. The 2009 Fatah Conference, chaired by Abu Mazen, unequivocally decided to reject the idea of a Jewish state. It is worth paying attention to the exact wording of the resolution: ‘An absolute opposition, from which there will be no withdrawal, to recognising Israel as a Jewish state.’ The Palestinian rejectionism was joined by a series of so-called human rights NGOs. They conducted a campaign centered on denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and an uncompromising stance on the issue of return. This is a destructive, mainly anti-Palestinian, campaign. Because the left in Israel influences the global left, it could have played a central role. It is quite possible that a clear statement against the ‘right of return’ would have helped the Palestinians break the illusory cycle. However, the opposite happened. Instead of encouraging the first signs of compromise, too many NGOs joined a campaign accusing Israel of not pursuing peace. Some associations even joined the Palestinian fantasy of the right of return. These Israeli and Palestinian associations gain massive funding from European countries, the European Union, and foundations that deny Israel’s right to exist. Instead of promoting the chances of reconciliation, compromise and agreement, the joint campaign reinforced Palestinian rejectionism.
First Signs of Peace
In 2020, a dramatic change took place. Contrary to all previous assessments, according to which no peace agreements with Arab countries would be achieved without an agreement with the Palestinians, normalisation agreements were reached with four Arab countries (the Abraham Accords). Cynics claim that these agreements were just about (national) interests, following American pressure. That’s right. But that’s the case for all peace agreements. The Abraham Accords reflect a deeper change in the Arab world. According to a survey by American research institute ‘Zogby’, 84 per cent of Emirati residents, 79 per cent of Saudi Arabians, 73 per cent of Egyptians, 72 per cent of Jordanians, 49 per cent of Lebanese, and 39 per cent of the Palestinian Authority residents support normalisation with Israel even in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Time will tell whether this is indeed a new chapter, which will also lead the Palestinians to recognise an agreement on the basis of ‘two states for two peoples’ rather than simply the ‘two state solution’ (the Palestinian refusal to say ‘two peoples’ reflects their rejection of the Jews as a ‘people’ as well as the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.)
None of the above absolves Israel of its responsibility for the continuation of the settlement-and-outpost schemes, sometimes in violation of its own commitments, such as the commitment from the ‘Road Map for Peace’ to dismantle outposts established from March 2001. This is also the case, even before that, for the accelerated settlement construction during Ehud Barak’s short tenure as prime minister. Israel must uphold every commitment it assumed and also refrain from measures that harm the prospects for peace.
But none of these were the reason for Palestinian rejectionism and the desire for peace does not require blindness nor self-deception. And when the peace camp creates the illusion that the agreement is within reach, it serves the right-wing. Because Barak, Clinton, Olmert and Obama have already made offers which the Palestinians refused. The illusion that peace is ‘at the door’ prevents the formulation of an alternative and allows some people of the right-wing to impose on Israel the vision of the extreme left-wing, in other words, one state.
It is also difficult to ignore the fact that a right-wing government is currently in power in Israel, whose very existence depends on extreme right-wing parties. The leader of the ‘Religious Zionism’ party is Bezalel Smotrich, who serves as Minister of Finance and minister in the Ministry of Defense. Following the heinous murder of two Jewish brothers in the village of Huwara, Smotrich said that ‘the State of Israel should wipe out the village’. It was a statement that was all moral disgrace. Smotrich retracted, but it is hard to ignore the fact that just as there is an anti-Zionist left, there is also an anti-Zionist right. They have a common goal: the establishment of One State from the sea to the Jordan. Needless to say, such a country, despite illusions from the left and the right, has no chance of existing. It didn’t work in Yugoslavia, it didn’t work in Lebanon, it didn’t work in Syria. But the coalition of BDS supporters and Smotrich supporters want to lead Israel to this disaster.
What then should Israel do?
Instead of an agreement that is not possible in the foreseeable future, we should strive for an arrangement, even without an agreement, which includes both Israeli security control and Palestinian autonomy, which will be almost a state. Such an arrangement should allow Palestinians autonomy in most areas of life, including planning and building, over at least 70 per cent of areas in the West Bank (including neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, as proposed by the ‘Save Jewish Jerusalem Movement’ or on the basis of the offer of Commanders for Israel’s Security. When a strategic change will take place, such as the weakening of political Islam (including Hamas), or a regime change in Iran, it may be possible, to move from a unilateral arrangement to a bilateral one. Inshallah.