The New York Times Revises the Peace Process

By Sol Stern
Monday, February 14, 2011

"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.

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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