Ehud Olmert is beginning to outline his final vision of peace between Israel and Palestine, and it is revealing.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that the price of an agreement with the Palestinians would “move us very close” to an exchange of equal amounts of territory, and that this must be stated “honestly and courageously.” The alternative to an agreement is a bi-national state, an idea, he said that “ever-growing segments of the international community are adopting.”

Speaking at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Olmert said the agreement now being formulated would give the Palestinians 100 percent of the West Bank, or territory of a similar area. “I’ll still be here,” he told committee members who said they wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to wish him good-bye, in light of the Kadima primary Wednesday, which is expected to result in his resignation.

According to Olmert, by the end of 2008, it should be possible to attain understandings with the Palestinians on three issues: borders, security and refugees. However Olmert stressed that the implementation of the understandings is conditioned on the application of the Bush road map and eradication of the Palestinian terrorist infrastructures, and so implementation will take place at a much later stage. “It is important to reach understandings, even if their implementation is delayed,” he said.

But on the issue of refugees Olmert said:

“Under no circumstances will there be a right of return, but we are willing to be part of an international mechanism that will deal with a solution to the problem. I share in expressing regret over what happened to the Palestinians in 1948 and also to the Jews who were deported from Arab countries.”

On the one hand, as Olmert leaves office he is revealing extraordinary statements for an Israeli Prime Minister. Now that he is no longer running for office he is saying the unspeakable for Israeli leadership, ‘I am sorry for what happened in 1948.’ But it comes with the mixed message that under no circumstances can any serious amount of refugees return to Israel.

Why? Israel has made the case that there must be two states for two peoples, and therefore a ‘right of return’ for five million Palestinian refugees is impossible. There will no longer be a state of majority Jews. But there is a huge gap between five million and none, or an insulting offer of 5000? Israel could welcome back hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and still be easily a majority-Jewish state.

Palestinian Refugee Camps
Palestinian Refugee Camps

In fact, in 1950 the Israeli Parliament came very close to inviting back most of the refugees in a move that would have put the populations on at least an even footing. Why so stingy now? The answer is that there is zero trust and mostly hatred between these two peoples. There has been no preparation for coexistence between these two peoples since the beginning of official international ‘peace processes’. This is true since the 1990’s, but really since the Camp David initiatives going back decades. You cannot expect a vision of coexistence with serious compromises to emerge if no international efforts have been made to build trust between these two peoples at war for almost a hundred years.

The real problem and tragedy is that neither people is ready for what the other people wants most, safety, security, dignity, a sense of a permanent place and home. All these miserable years of elitist peace processes have only made the relationship worse.

There have been thousands of valiant peacemakers over the years on both sides, and I have known many of them, some secular some religious. None of them ever received serious support from the governments of the region or from other major players.

Thus, the world continues to inherit the instability from this confict that it deserves. Only when governments wake up to the fact that they need people to make peace will the priorities shift and the tactics shift as to how peace actually happens. Until that time we will continue to have suicide bombs, apartheid walls, mass prisons, economic blackmail, collective punishment, and the empowerment of extremist groups, extremist religious groups, and extreme states on all sides. For them the official neglect of human needs means big business.

I know these two peoples intimately and I have worked with them for twenty five years. I am certain that with massive investment in relationships, in projects together, that they could flourish together, and that in fact hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could one day return to Israel itself and become citizens, in addition to a Palestinian state next door (which I believe should also have Jewish citizens). This is all possible if the approach to peacemaking completely shifts away from gimmicks and games of desperate politicians, and becomes instead a deep investment in people and their needs, on both sides.

That Israel is rich and Palestine is poor is misleading. One out of every three Israeli children are born in poverty thanks to the ravages of Republican dominated economics of the last twenty years. There is room to help both these peoples, there is room to build the equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel, there is room to build a Jewish sense of safety in the land, and there is room to make a new Palestine flourish. But it will only happen when human needs become the center of peace processes not the periphery. When human needs move to the center then many issues will emerge and new possibilities will also emerge that we cannot imagine now. But only in this way will we see a safe and flourishing two-state solution that has a deeply Jewish state and a deeply Palestinian state, both democratic and open to all.

Children of Shatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon
Children of Shatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon
© Marc Gopin