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Ehud Olmert, Israeli Former Prime Minister, Regrets Mideast Peace Talk Failure In New Memoir

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EHUD OLMERT
AP File

JERUSALEM — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a "historic mistake" by rebuffing an Israeli peace offer during negotiations in 2008, Israel's former prime minister wrote in excerpts from his forthcoming memoirs published Friday.

The new details from Ehud Olmert's memoirs were published days after the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera released secret documents revealing the details of the Palestinians' positions during the same negotiations, in which both sides appear to have been prepared to make major concessions.

Talks have largely been deadlocked since Olmert left office in early 2009.

Olmert offered Abbas a state including the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, according to the excerpts published in the daily Yediot Ahronot. Israel would have annexed 6.3 percent of the West Bank to retain major Jewish settlements and would have given an equivalent amount of land inside Israel to the Palestinians as compensation.

The proposal would have seen the area around Jerusalem's Old City, with its holy sites, governed by an international consortium, and a 40-kilometer tunnel linking the West Bank and Gaza through Israeli territory. The contents of the negotiations were kept secret at the time, but have emerged slowly since then.

Olmert said he made the offer on September 16, 2008, placing a map on the table at his official residence in Jerusalem.

Abbas "looked at me and I looked at him. He was silent," Olmert wrote.

"He said he couldn't decide immediately and needed time. I told him he was making a historic mistake."

Abbas said he wanted to consult.

"'No,' I answered. "'Take the pen and sign now. You will never get a more fair or just offer. Don't hesitate. It's difficult for me, too, but we cannot opt out of an agreement. Even in another fifty years there will not be a government in Israel that will offer you what I offered.'

"I saw that he, too, was anguishing over it. Finally, he told me, 'Give me a few days. I'm no expert in maps,'" Olmert wrote.

Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, suggested a meeting the next day between Israeli and Palestinian advisers, but then postponed it, Olmert wrote. The meeting never took place. "I did not meet Abu Mazen after that. The map remained in my hands," he wrote.

The sides were closer to a deal "than at any time in the past," he wrote.

Abbas told The Washington Post in May 2009 that he didn't accept the offer because "the gaps were wide."

Israel was prepared to absorb 5,000 Palestinian refugees over five years, a number the Palestinians considered far too low. And the Palestinians were prepared to agree to a land swap of just under 2 percent of the West Bank, not the 6.3 percent proposed by Olmert.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has said they made a counteroffer three months later. But by then Olmert's time in office was running out because of mounting corruption charges, and shortly thereafter Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip to halt Palestinian rocket fire.

Weeks after the offensive ended, hard-line parties won a national election in Israel and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu formed a government.

The documents released by Al-Jazeera this week show that the Palestinians were prepared to allow Israel to retain sovereignty over most of the Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem.

Though Palestinian negotiators told their Israeli counterparts that refugees must be able to choose if they want to return to what is now Israel, the leaks quoted Abbas as telling Palestinian negotiators that it would be "illogical" to expect 5 million or even 1 million to exercise the "right of return."

Those revelations have sparked outrage among some Palestinians, and Abbas' rivals from the Islamic group Hamas have called him a traitor.

The Palestinians wanted Netanyahu to use Olmert's offer as a starting point for negotiations, but the more hawkish Likud leader has taken it off the table. The Palestinians have demanded a full freeze to Israeli settlement construction as a condition for talks – a demand they did not make of Olmert.

Negotiations between Abbas and Netanyahu began only in September 2009, only to break down three weeks later when an Israeli settlement freeze expired. Deadlock has ensued.

In the excerpts published Friday, Olmert said President Barack Obama's administration had erred in making a settlement freeze central to talks. "I believe this was a grave error, and I was sorry the U.S. administration was dragged into that trap," he wrote.

Olmert also described his transformation from a hard-line supporter of Israeli settlements to a believer in territorial compromise.

"Many, and I among them, ignored the ramifications of the mixing of the populations, of the grave harm to freedom of movement, quality of life and civil rights of Palestinian residents who lived next to the growing Jewish population," he wrote.

Around the Web

Ehud Olmert - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

BBC News - Profile: Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert: Biography from Answers.com

Ehud Olmert : Ehud Olmert News and Photos - latimes.com

In Memoirs, Olmert Says He and Abbas Were Near Peace Deal - NYTimes.com