'I felt weight of Jewish history on my shoulders'
Former PM Olmert gives rare glance behind scenes of peace process in unpublished memoirs; the silent acceptance of settlement construction, the rare proposal to Abbas and the historic opportunity that slid between his fingers
Thousands of documents leaked
by al-Jazeera network this week exposed the Palestinian Authority's secret position on the negotiations with Israel.
In his unpublished memoirs, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reveals
the chain of events from his point of view.
In mid August 2006, after the ceasefire in the northern border, Olmert continued with attempts to re-launch negotiations with the Palestinians. He instructed to convey a message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,
telling him that the two have many things to talk about.
"The main aim for the first meeting was to create a relaxed atmosphere on which we can build further meetings. At first, the conversation did not focus on any one issue, but then came the requests. Abu Mazen (Abbas) eventually came to the point – he asked us to release their tax funds, which had been frozen by our tax authorities for quite some time," Olmert recalled.
"'How much money do you need?' I asked Abu Mazen. 'We need 50 million,' he said. 'Shekel?', 'Yes,' he replied. 'Something seems unreasonable,' I said. 'I knew it,' he proclaimed, 'You will never agree to give us what we really deserve.'
'A whole new era.' Olmert and Abbas (Photo: Reuters)
"'Mr. President,' I said, 'It seems to me that based on past experience you are not telling me the sums you really need. According to our calculations you need $100 million, and we are willing to transfer this sum to you immediately,'" Olmert recounted the conversation.
"The room fell silent. If there were flies on a wintery day in Jerusalem, you could have heard them flying. The Palestinians were in shock.
"'You mean $100 million,' he asked. 'It's your money,' I replied, 'And you need it in order to help your population. If you need additional funds, we will make an effort to transfer them to you."
"To me, it was not an attempt to outwit him, or even a display of generosity, but rather an attempt to clarify that we are not going to play around, and wanted to lay a foundation for serious negotiations.
"Many years later I was told that later that night, when Abu Mazen entered the presidential limousine that drove him back to Ramallah, he turned to the person sitting next to him and said, 'We are beginning a whole new era. This is different than anything that happened in the past.'"
Olmert did not spare criticism from the current Israeli government and the Obama administration vis-à-vis the construction moratorium in the settlements.
In his book, Olmert wrote that the government under his leadership allowed to continue construction in the West Bank in an overt, yet limited manner, and noted that it did not undermine the continuation of the talks.
"Many discussions focused on the area referred to as E1, which connects Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim. The Palestinians have expressed outmost concern over this area and claimed that the construction might block the land continuation between Bethlehem and Ramallah.
"I promised the Americans that there will be no construction in that area during negotiations, but also stressed that Israel will not agree to include this area among the territories evacuated in the future. It was clear that the Americans and Palestinians would not agree to it, but there was a silent acceptance that if we keep our word, negotiations would continue," Olmert recalled.
"Only when the government switched in Israel, on April 2009, and the Obama administration took the helm in America, the question of the construction freeze in the West Bank became a worldwide dispute. I believe it is a grave mistake, and regretted to hear that the American administration was dragged into this trap."
Against the backdrop of a police investigation against him, Olmert continued to promote the negotiations in 2008. He spent most of his energy on drafting an unprecedented plan to propose to Abbas – and drawing a map that the Palestinian leader would eventually copy onto a napkin.
"I had a meeting scheduled with Abu Mazen for September 16. I began by presenting the principles of the arrangement that I was proposing. After I finished, Abu Mazen sighed deeply, and asked to see the map that I had prepared. I spread it out. He looked at it, and I looked at him. He was silent.
"Never before had any Israeli prime minister presented such a crystallized and detailed position about resolving the conflict as was presented to him on that day. For the first time since the negotiations began, I was very tense. For the first time since I had become prime minister, I truly felt the weight of Jewish history on my shoulders, and despite the fact that I was confident that I was doing the right thing, the negotiations were very heavy," Olmert wrote.
"Abu Mazen said that he could not decide and that he needed time. I told him that he was making an historic mistake. 'Give me the map so that I can consult with my colleagues,' he said to me. 'No,' I replied. 'Take the pen and sign now. You'll never get an offer that is more fair or more just. Don't hesitate. This is hard for me too, but we don't have an option of not resolving (the conflict).'"
"I saw that he was agonizing. In the end he said to me, 'Give me a few days. I don't know my way around maps. I propose that tomorrow we meet with two map experts, one from your side and one from our side. If they tell me that everything is all right, we can sign.'
"The next day they called and said that Abu Mazen had forgotten that they needed to be in Amman that day, and they asked to postpone the meeting by a week. I haven't met with Abu Mazen since then. The map stayed with me," Olmert wrote in his memoirs.
"We were very close, more than ever in the past, to compete a principle agreement that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians. We can and must achieve peace," concluded Olmert.
Full story published Friday by Yedioth Ahronoth