March 13, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 211

A Thousand Times: No, No, No: Why the PLO Cannot Sign Any Peace Treaty With Israel

March 13, 2020 | By Ze'ev B. Begin*
Palestine | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 211

"We say a thousand times: 'No, no, no, to the Deal of the Century'... Our people will send [it] to the garbage bin of history, where all the conspiratorial plans to eliminate our cause have gone." This was the statement that PLO Chairman Mahmoud 'Abbas delivered at a press conference in Ramallah on January 28, immediately following President Donald Trump's presentation of the American "Peace to Prosperity" plan.

Abbas's vehement objection to the American move is understandable. It represents a concrete withdrawal from some major components of proposals made by the U.S. and Israel over the last 20 years in their efforts to attain a peace agreement between the parties. But the fact is that even the more recent of these proposals, which deviated considerably from Israel's official positions until 2000, did not bring about the hoped-for agreement. Hence, as a reality check, it is worthwhile to revisit the PLO's reaction to the last  Israeli proposal, presented by the prime minister of Israel at the time, Ehud Olmert, to Mahmoud 'Abbas on September 16, 2008, a proposal that went even further than the compromise presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000, which was accepted by then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.

The PLO Rejected Olmert's 2008 Far-Reaching Proposal

The main points of Olmert's proposal were the following: (1) Israel would cede 97% of the territory of Judea and Samaria.[1] In addition, land-swaps with Israel would ensure that the area under PLO sovereignty would be equal in size to the area that was under Egypt's control (the Gaza Strip) and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Judea and Samaria) in June 1967. It should be noted that the Gaza Strip was already under Hamas control at the time of this proposal. (2) A "safe passage" route under PLO control would connect Gaza to Judea; (3) Jerusalem would be divided into two capitals, one under Israeli sovereignty and another under PLO sovereignty; Israel would cede its sovereignty on the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives and the City of David, which would be jointly administered by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the PLO, the Unites States and Israel;[2] (5) About 5,000 refugees would be admitted to Israel over a five-year period, on the basis of personal-humanitarian considerations, rather than "the right to return" or "family unification"; (6) The PLO would sign its commitment to “an end of conflict and end of claims."[3]

Ever since the negotiations between Israel and the PLO were halted in 2008, academic and political circles have heatedly debated the question of whether 'Abbas "did not accept" Olmert's proposal, or actually "rejected" it. Some attach political significance to this distinction, arguing that 'Abbas did not reject the proposal but merely refrained from accepting it because Olmert was on the point of resigning, and therefore his proposal was moot in any case. This argument led some to conclude that a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the PLO would eventually be signed along the lines of Olmert's 2008 proposal. Olmert himself argued[4] that if his proposal "is placed back on the agenda, it will become the peace agreement."

In the recent years, PLO leaders have likewise argued that the 2008 negotiations could have led to an agreement. But in the months after the talks stalled, their position was different. In order to explore this, let us look back at those days.

On September 16, 2008, 'Abbas promised Olmert that he would send his aide over the next day for further discussion, but the next morning, PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat informed Olmert that there had been a mistake – they had forgotten that he and Abbas were going to Amman – and suggested postponing the meeting to the following week. "I never saw him again," Olmert said.[5] Several months later, 'Abbas was asked why he had declined Olmert's proposal. 'Abbas did not claim that technicalities of schedule had prevented it, or that Olmert was about to resign. He replied: "The gaps were wide."[6]

One month after that, Erekat gave his own version of the secret behind the Palestinian rejection of Olmert's proposal, saying: "At first they told us that we would run hospitals and schools. Later they were willing to give us 66 percent [of the area, a reference to prime minister Menachem Begin's autonomy plan of 1977]. At Camp David, they reached 90 percent [Barak's first proposal, from 1999], and today they have reached 100 percent. So why should we hurry, after all the injustice that has been done to us?"[7] 

Another month passed, and Ehud Olmert wrote in an op-ed[8]: "To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them... It would be worth exploring the reasons that the Palestinians rejected my offer and preferred, instead, to drag their feet, avoiding real decisions."

Thus, over two months in 2009, both parties admitted that the PLO indeed rejected Olmert's proposal in September 2008, and two years later, former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice revealed in her memoir No Higher Honor that the PLO had continued to refuse the offer even in November and December 2008. She wrote that she had already discussed Olmert's proposal with 'Abbas in May 2008, meaning that 'Abbas was not really surprised by Olmert's proposal in September. She suggested that the proposal, and 'Abbas's acceptance of it, be secretly put on record – but 'Abbas refused. When he came to Washington in November 2008 to say goodbye to President Bush, "the President took 'Abbas into the Oval Office alone and appealed to him to reconsider. The Palestinian stood firm, and the idea died," she wrote.

Since 2008, the PLO leadership has insisted that renewed negotiations with Israel on a permanent agreement must start where negotiations with Olmert left off, that is, with the proposal Olmert put on the table in September 16, 2008. 'Abbas recently reiterated this position in a February 11, 2020 joint press conference with Olmert in New York, where he declared that he was "fully" ready to resume negotiations from that point. A week later, an official close to 'Abbas clarified the intention behind this statement. He divulged that during a meeting held prior to the press conference, Olmert had once again urged 'Abbas to agree to his plan, in order to thwart the U.S. peace plan. But 'Abbas refused, indicating that issues related to the border, Jerusalem, and refugees still needed to be discussed and negotiated before the Palestinians could approve of the plan.[9] The PLO leadership is therefore still signaling its unwillingness to accept even Olmert's far-reaching proposal, and thus, realistically, any conceivable proposal for a permanent agreement with Israel. But that should not surprise us, if we recall the fascinating and sad interview[10] with Barak's foreign minister, history professor Shlomo Ben Ami, who negotiated with the PLO in 2000 in a bid to attain a historic agreement between the parties.

Lessons From The 2000 Israel-PLO Negotiations

Ben Ami said: "Eventually, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he realizes that it never ends. Another push and another push, but they are never satisfied. It never ends." Ben Ami then gave an example, describing his talks on Jerusalem with PLO representatives in 2000: "By this stage, we had agreed to the division of the city and to full Palestinian sovereignty in Haram Al-Sharif [the Temple Mount], but we insisted that some affinity of ours to Temple Mount be recognized. I remember that when we held talks with Yasser 'Abed Rabbo, Saeb Erekat, and Muhammad Dahlan at the Bolling Air Force Base I raised the following idea without consulting anyone: The Palestinians would have sovereignty on the Temple Mount, but would undertake not to conduct excavations there because the place was sacred to the Jews. The Palestinians agreed not to excavate, but under no circumstances would they agree to grant us that minimal statement, 'because the site is sacred to the Jews.' At that moment I grasped that they were not willing to move toward our position even on the emotional and symbolic level. At the deepest level, they are not ready to recognize that we have any kind of title to this [land]."

The disappointed Ben Ami then explained his deep conclusion: "What Ehud [Barak] and I suddenly saw is the hard rock the process had come up against. That it is not a matter of territory in return for peace, not a matter of the Madrid assumptions. What we are facing is the question of whether there is a Palestinian recognition of the right of a Jewish democratic state to exist in this part of the world." He added: "At the end of the process, it is impossible not to form the impression that the Palestinians don't want a solution as much as they want to place Israel in the dock. They want to denounce our state more than they want their own state. At the deepest level they have a negative ethos... Hence, from their point of view, the process is not about conciliation but about vindication, about correcting the injustice, about undermining our existence as a Jewish state."

The PLO's Negation Of The Essence Of The State Of Israel

This approach of the PLO's is not limited to negating any historical affinity of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. They also reject the very existence of a Jewish nation, defining Judaism as a religion only, that is not entitled to the national right to establish and maintain a state. Reacting to the Israeli demand of 2008 that the PLO recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, 'Abbas rejected it, on the grounds that accepting it would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement [in Israel] of refugees.[11] Erekat explained a month later[12]: "Demanding that you recognize a Jewish state is [virtually like] asking you to apply for membership in the Zionist movement. This movement owns the idea that religion equals nationality." Two months later, on August 13, 2009, Fatah published the resolutions of its Sixth Congress in Bethlehem,[13] including "an absolute objection, which cannot be withdrawn, to recognizing Israel as a 'Jewish state,' [and this] in order to protect the rights of the refugees and the rights of our people beyond the Green Line [i.e. the Arab citizens of Israel]." 

The Seventh Fatah Congress, held in December 2016, endorsed this resolution, the practical significance of which was later explained by Hafez Al-Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida[14]: "We still strive [to gain] the homeland, outside and inside, and we shall never despair." The common expression "inside" means within the area delineated by the armistice demarcation line of 1949, that is, the area of the State of Israel.

Years passed, and, responding to President Trump's plan at a January 28, 2020 press conference in Ramallah, Mahmoud 'Abbas exposed the deeper layer of the PLO beliefs, saying: "Dear brothers, I consider this deal as the culmination of the Balfour declaration. This was what they were aiming for in the Balfour declaration... The Deal of the Century is based on the Balfour Declaration, which was created by America and Britain. Some may find this strange. America? Yes, America! And Britain. It was America that formulated [the Balfour Declaration], in agreement with Britain, and it was America that incorporated it into the Covenant of the League of Nations... America founded the Balfour Declaration, and it has now begun to implement it."

Indeed, according to Article 20 of the 1964 Palestinian Covenant, "The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void." And so, even 22 years after the ceremony in which the Palestinian Charter was "abolished," the PLO continues to consider the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 as a source of continuous injustice that has been done to the Palestinian Arabs.

It is in this spirit that Mahmoud 'Abbas stated in his September 22, 2016 speech at the United Nations General Assembly: "A hundred years have passed since the notorious Balfour Declaration, by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people. This paved the road for the Nakba of the Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land." The following year, on November 17, 2017, marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, 'Abbas wrote in an article titled "The Burden of Lord Balfour"[15]: "Lord Arthur Balfour was a British foreign secretary who decided to change the identity and fate of Palestine, a land that he did not own, by promising it to the Zionist movement, and dramatically altering the history of the Palestinian people... The Balfour Declaration of 1917 symbolizes the international role in the Palestinian catastrophe and exodus, the Nakba of 1948."

'Abbas then complained that the international community had persisted in this approach over the years: "Thirty years later, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 (II), calling for the partition of Palestine into two states. Again, this decision disregarded the wishes, aspirations, and the very rights of the indigenous population of Palestine... leading to the Nakba (catastrophe), which led to over two-thirds of the Palestinian people becoming refugees, including myself." This denouncement of the 1947 UN partition resolution is in line with the PLO "Declaration of Independence" of 1988,[16] according to which the partition resolution is a tactical tool which "continues to attach conditions to international legitimacy that guarantee the Palestinian Arab people the right to sovereignty and national independence." But, in contrast with the optimistic view in some circles, the PLO's negation of the partition resolution is clearly expressed in the same paragraph, which denounces "the historical injustice done to the Palestinian Arab people in its displacement and in being deprived of the right to self-determination following the adoption of General Assembly resolution 181 (II) of 1947, which partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish State."

In that  article, 'Abbas also proposed a solution to the refugee issue: "We also reiterate that, in order to end claims with Israel, there must be a just solution for the seven million Palestinian refugees based on the choice of every refugee", i.e. his choice between returning to his family's original home in Israel and accepting financial compensation. The meaning of this permanent demand is that the PLO is not authorized to represent the will of each individual refugee, and hence the PLO is not able to agree with the Israeli government on any quota of refugees that would be allowed to settle in Israel. Hence, the PLO is unable to include in any agreement the vital component of "mutual end of claims." This barrier is in addition to the ongoing claim to the entire area of Israel, a claim that the PLO continues to instill in its youth.

The new American "Peace to Prosperity" plan implicitly anticipates that within the next four years the PLO leadership will return to the negotiation table. In order to avoid future mistakes, we must abandon the erroneous theory that "the PLO is the solution." This assumption is wishful thinking, along the lines of Julius Caesar's keen observation: "Something that a man wants, he also willingly believes in." Hence, we must not close our eyes to the simple fact that, for the PLO, the real, fundamental, deep, core issue is the hundred-year-old "injustice" embedded in the very existence of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine. This gap cannot be bridged, and no plan that any Israeli government can accept will make the PLO declare an end to the conflict and an end to their claims vis-a-vis Israel. Hence, a peace treaty with the PLO cannot and will not be signed.

*Ze'ev B. Begin is a Senior Fellow at MEMRI. This article was first published in Hebrew in the Israeli daily Haaretz on March 6, 2020.


[1] According to 'Abbas, The Washington Post, May 31, 2009

[2] Points 2-4 according to Olmert in a November 28, 2009 interview with The Australian.

[3] Points 5-6 according to Olmert's January 17, 2012 talk at the MEMRI Forum.

[4] MEMRI Forum, January 17, 2012.

[5] Ehud Olmert, an interview with The Australian, November 28, 2009.

[6] 'Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview with The Washington Post, May 5, 2009.

[7] Saeb Erekat, in an interview in Al-Dustour, June 25, 2009.

[8] Ehud Olmert, The Washington Post, July 17, 2009

[9], February 17, 2020.

[10] Shlomo Ben Ami, an interview, Haaretz, September 12, 2001.

[11] 'Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview with The Washington Post, May 5, 2009.

[12] Saeb Erekat, in an interview in Al-Dustour, June 25, 2009.

[14] Hafez Al-Barghouti, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, July 7, 2012.

[15] Mahmoud 'Abbas, The Cairo Reviews of Global Affairs, The American University in Cairo, 2017.


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