The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, which fell this week, has sparked much hand-wringing about why Israel still controls the West Bank half a century later. By sheer coincidence, Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon produced a scoop this week answering that question. It detailed the precise offer the Obama administration made to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the final stages of the peace talks it brokered, and how Abbas, once again, walked away without even deigning to respond.
In early 2014, as the end of the nine months of talks agreed to the previous July were drawing to a close, the administration began drafting a “framework agreement” that would serve as the basis for further talks. Tibon obtained two versions of the administration’s proposal.
The first, dating from February 2014, contained a relatively balanced mix of concessions to Israeli and Palestinian demands. For instance, it stipulated a border based on the 1967 lines, as Abbas demanded, but said Palestinian refugees and their descendants would have no “right of return” to Israel, as Israel demanded. It rejected a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, thereby pleasing Abbas. It also pleased Israel by saying the talks must result in a Palestinian state alongside “Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people.” It also left a few issues open: On Jerusalem, for instance, it merely restated both sides’ aspirations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave verbal consent to the document. Then, on February 19, Secretary of State John Kerry presented it to Abbas, who went ballistic. His primary objection, U.S. officials told Tibon, was that the issue of Jerusalem was left open. Abbas wanted the U.S. to commit to giving him half the city.
So the Americans revised the document to accommodate more of Abbas’ demands. The new version, written in March, explicitly said East Jerusalem must become the Palestinian capital, thereby prejudging the outcome of one of the talks’ most sensitive issues. It also made several other concessions to the Palestinians, such as adding a statement asserting that the talks’ goal was “to end the occupation that began in 1967,” the implication being that the conflict isn’t one for which both sides share blame, but an evil unilaterally perpetrated by Israel against innocent Palestinians.
Similarly, whereas the February document said the border would be based on the 1967 lines with 1:1 land swaps that would “take into account subsequent developments” since 1967, this phrase was dropped in the March version. In other words, the February version said the border would be adjusted to accommodate the major settlement blocs, while the March version allowed Abbas to continue demanding that hundreds of thousands of Israelis be uprooted from their homes.
Thus, what started out as a relatively balanced document in February had morphed by March into one that clearly tilted toward the Palestinians. So how did Abbas respond to these concessions? He neither accepted the document nor rejected it; he “simply didn’t respond,” Tibon reported.
This, of course, is exactly what happened the last time Abbas received an offer complying with almost all his demands. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered him 93 percent of the West Bank with 1:1 land swaps for the remainder, plus all of Gaza and most of East Jerusalem, with Muslim control over all the city’s holy sites, including the Western Wall (Olmert proposed governing the sites with a five-member committee comprising representatives of Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and America, thereby guaranteeing the Muslims an automatic majority). But Abbas never responded; he simply walked away. Only nine months later did he tell the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that he rejected the offer because “the gaps were wide.” Perhaps he would have said the same of Obama’s offer had Diehl interviewed him again.
This is also what happened when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton made a similar offer to Yasser Arafat in 2000-01. Arafat walked away without even making a counterproposal and then launched a lethal terrorist war against Israel, killing over 1,000 Israelis in the next four years.
And that’s without even mentioning all the previous examples, like the Arabs’ rejection of the UN partition plan in 1947, or their adoption of a policy of “no peace, no recognition and no negotiations” with Israel at the Khartoum summit three months after the Six-Day War.
In other words, there’s one very simple reason why Israel still controls the West Bank: The Palestinians have consistently refused repeated offers to give it to them.
But there’s an important supporting reason as well: Palestinians feel they can get away with serial rejectionism because the world always responds by blaming Israel, as the Obama Administration did.
Addressing the Senate in April 2014, for instance, Kerry famously declared that Israel’s announcement of new construction in Jerusalem had caused the talks to go “poof,” carefully neglecting to mention that by this point, the talks were dead anyway since Abbas had already rejected the administration’s best offer. The excuses administration officials gave Tibon were equally ridiculous. Abbas, they said, was “disappointed” that Netanyahu had delayed releasing some two dozen Palestinian prisoners—as if that were ample grounds for rejecting an offer of statehood. They also said Abbas wasn’t sure Obama could “deliver” Netanyahu. But Netanyahu said yes to the February proposal without being sure Obama could deliver Abbas – which it turns out he couldn’t; why was it unreasonable to expect Abbas to go out on a similar limb?
The problem isn’t just Palestinian rejectionism. It’s that the rest of the world actually encourages this rejectionism by ensuring that the diplomatic price is always paid by Israel, and never the Palestinians themselves. The Palestinians have quite reasonably concluded that they can play this game ad infinitum, until the world eventually pressures Israel to accept even those Palestinian demands that would entail committing national suicide, like the “right of return.”
If the Palestinians actually wanted peace, they’d do a deal regardless of how the rest of the world behaved. If the world behaved differently, the Palestinians might eventually conclude that a deal was in their interests. But as long as neither of these two conditions is met, there’s every reason to think that in another 50 years, we’ll be reading more hand-wringing articles about why Israel still controls the West Bank.
Originally published in Commentary on June 8, 2017