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Ehud Olmert: 'US agreed to take 100,000 Palestinians'

The former Israeli prime minister says President Bush made the proposal in 2008, offering a glimpse into options that might be considered in current talks.

About 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes in 1948. A refugee camp in Jordan.
About 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes in 1948. A refugee camp in Jordan.

TEL AVIV // Ehud Olmert, Israel's former premier, disclosed this week that Washington had offered to absorb 100,000 Palestinian refugees as US citizens as part of a peace deal negotiated in the previous round of talks two years ago.

The previously unknown offer was made during the US-backed negotiations that took place from November 2007 until December 2008, after which the Palestinians terminated talks to protest against Israel's attack in the Gaza Strip. The proposal, which Mr Olmert said was made by the president at the time, George W Bush, appeared aimed at serving as an incentive for the Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the issue of Palestinian refugees.

While it is unclear whether such a proposal is being discussed in the current peace talks, its disclosure provides a glimpse into the kinds of options that might be in play. Mr Olmert, who made his comments during a rare political speech in Tel Aviv, revealed the US proposal as part of his most detailed description yet of the peace offer he had made the Palestinians. While Palestinian leaders then viewed Mr Olmert's offer as insufficient, they wanted his more right-leaning successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to use it as a starting point in renewed talks. However, Mr Netanyahu had taken the offer off the table, according to Israeli press reports.

Mr Olmert, who left office last year following a string of corruption charges against him, said that Israel would have agreed to repatriate "a minimal amount" of refugees who had lost their homes when Israel was created in 1948. "The numbers discussed were below 20,000, but this would require an end to the conflict and a Palestinian announcement that they would not make any more demands," Mr Olmert said.

The former prime minister also suggested that Barak Obama, the current US president, might be prepared to make a similar offer. "There is no difference between [Mr] Bush's positions and [Mr] Obama's positions," he said. Mr Obama "would have been very pleased if the proposals presented by the current Israeli government would have been the same as those presented by us". The US offer would have appealed to many Palestinians, Mr Olmert said. "I think that if the refugees - many of whom are already second- or third- generation Palestinians living outside of the territories - were given a choice between returning to Israel or the United States, we could guess what they would choose."

The fate of the Palestinian refugees remains a thorny issue. About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that led to Israel's establishment in 1948. Palestinians claim the right of return for the refugees and their descendents - of which there are at least five million living in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Many other Palestinians live in other countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Kuwait while some others live outside the region in countries such as Chile, Canada, the United States and Australia.

Mr Olmert also disclosed other details of his peace offer, which he said was made on September 13, 2008, and most of which had already been made public. He had proposed the creation of a Palestinian state on more than 90 per cent of the West Bank, with swaps of land between the two sides to compensate for any territory that Israel annexes. In the past, he said he had offered about 94 per cent of West Bank land.

Other details included forming a passage through Israeli territory to connect the West Bank and Gaza and allowing the Palestinians to have a capital in the mostly Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem. The holy sites of Jerusalem, perhaps the biggest dispute in the talks, were to be governed jointly by Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, he said. The offer could still serve as a framework for peace talks, Mr Olmert said. "We are really on the brink on this point, at least to the extent that I know the opinions of the Palestinian leadership." He added that if Mr Netanyahu succeedd in clinching a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, then "you've heard its main details this evening".

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, confirmed the details of Mr Olmert's offer this week and said the Palestinians had made a counter-offer, according to the Associated Press. He declined to provide more details. The current talks, in the meantime, are being hampered by the expiration next week of a partial Israeli freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr Abbas, who wants Israel to extend the freeze, reiterated yesterday that he would quit the negotiations should the moratorium not be renewed.