Last month, Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff published an interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in which Olmert talked about the in-depth discussions that he had with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and how close he thought they had come to securing a final peace deal.
The article’s “Exclusive” headline notwithstanding, aside from a picture of Abbas’ hand-drawn map of Olmert’s proposal there was virtually nothing in it that wasn’t already reported by Israeli journalist Bernard Avishai in a February 2011 piece in the New York Times Magazine. But, as the interview was published in The Tower, which is a new initiative of the right-wing Israel Project, Olmert’s comments were presented as “Details Behind the Peace the Palestinians Rebuffed,” in other words, as yet more evidence that the Palestinians just aren’t prepared to accept Israel. And this is how the interview was spun elsewhere, as Avishai himself observed in a subsequent piece in Open Zion that added some important details left out of the Tower article.
Yesterday, at an event at the Woodrow Wilson Center, I had the chance to ask Olmert about the interview myself, and whether he interpreted Abbas’ (also known as Abu Mazen) behavior this way.
“I never said, never did I mean to say that the fact that he didn’t say no was really just a more polite way of blaming him for not having peace with Israel,” Olmert replied.
OLMERT: There were many reasons, some of which can be understood. You know, I kept saying all the time that when people talk to me about Abu Mazen they said, “He’s not serious, he doesn’t mean it seriously, he’s very weak, and so on and so forth,” I said, “Look, everyone within the context of Israel understands that the pressures on Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] from the right-wing make it very difficult for him to take a decision, and must be understood, and must be, you know, reconciled with…
But I say, “You understand it about Bibi but you don’t understand it about Abu Mazen? Does he not have [Mohammed] Dahlan who is willing to overthrow him at any minute? What about Hamas? And what about all of the others in his own party? Do you think that opposition is a creation only of Israeli politics? So he’s got his problems just as well. […]
So I think that he is a partner for peace, and I don’t know amongst the Palestinians who may be a better partner for peace. So if we want peace, we have to find the good excuses on why to make peace with him rather than to say why he is not ready to make peace.
It’s also good to see an Israeli leader recognize that the Palestinians actually have their own legitimate political concerns. As I discussed last December with the Brookings Institution’s Khaled Elgindy, we often hear about how Israeli Prime Ministers are constrained from doing this or that because of domestic political pressures, and it’s true that they often are, but it’s too rarely acknowledged that Palestinian leaders have their own domestic pressures to contend with. Getting to a two-state agreement will require navigating some complicated politics among both Israelis and Palestinians, so it’s important that Olmert acknowledged that.