What the Palestine Papers Mean

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January 24, 2011

Reprinted from Mitchell Plitnick’s excellent blog, The Third Way, at http://mitchellplitnick.com/

Al Jazeera unloaded a bombshell on the US-brokered Israel-Palestine diplomacy today when they released the first wave of what they are calling “The Palestine Papers.”

These papers consist of some 1,600 internal documents (e-mails, minutes of classified meetings, maps and strategy papers) from negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis from 1999-2010. The revelations are staggering, largely in that they confirm what most serious analysts have been saying for the past decade: that these negotiations have been futile from the beginning owing to the severe imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians and the US’ failure to act as an honest broker.

The revelations in the initial release include these:

*The Palestinian Authority (PA) was willing to give over to Israel all the existing territory on which Israel has established settlements in East Jerusalem except for Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim). This was something Yasir Arafat had specifically refused to do in 2000

*The PA was also willing to settle for only a token number of refugees returning to Israel and would agree to a 1:1 land swap of 1.9% of West Bank Territory in exchange for an equal quantity of Israeli territory

*That Israel rejected these offers out of hand, while insisting that it was the Palestinians who were being intransigent

*That the US told the Palestinians that they must cede the areas of the settlements of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim or the Palestinians “won’t have a state,” fully adopting the Israeli position.

The US, frequently said to have acted as Israel’s lawyer, simply was not even trying to balance the power scales in these negotiations, but only adding the weight of the world’s only superpower behind that of the regional power, Israel.

Israel, for its part, is convincingly revealed as not being interested in reaching a deal with the Palestinians without a complete Palestinian surrender; there was no hint here of compromise, even with the allegedly more moderate Kadima government. Tzipi Livni, indeed, seems assured that the Palestinians would eventually have to agree with her, since the alternative would be dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Let’s look at what these, and many other, revelations mean for each of the parties and for the peace process more broadly.

The Palestinian Authority

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Palestinian society can immediately see that the concessions that are being offered by the PA go much farther than most Palestinians would be willing to accept. The PA is already on very thin ice in Palestine. They are increasingly viewed as illegitimate as there have been no elections since 2006. Their human rights record is coming under increasing attack. And, while little of it spoken loudly, more and more Palestinians are coming to believe that the PA’s tactic of working with Israel has not borne the fruit of progress.

Lead PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat

Now, Palestinians are going to hear of these wide-ranging concessions being offered to Israel with no public discussion and, not incidentally, with neither a compatible Israeli offer or any hint that the United States would be willing to push the Palestinian ideas with their Israeli allies.

This cannot be seen as anything but more capitulation and quisling behavior. Watching some of the Al Jazeera English broadcast earlier today and seeing the angry, damn near hysterical reaction of Saeb Erekat demonstrated just how much impact this could have. Indeed, it may well mean the end for the PA.

Much remains to be seen, of course. While most of the information will be news to Americans, many Palestinians will find it only confirms some of the things they’ve heard and their own suspicions. It may not rouse as much hostility against the PA as one might expect.

On the other hand, it seems even more likely that this confirmation of their fears will spur Palestinian anger against the PA. Indeed, it may not be a coincidence that just a day ago PA President Mahmoud Abbas warned against a renewed popular uprising in the Palestinian Territories if talks failed.


A few things really come to light here about Israel. As I recently wrote, Israel has very little incentive to take risks (perceived or real) for peace, and this comes through very clearly in The Palestine Papers. If the Palestinians made offers which they knew were well beyond what their constituents would accept, it made little impact on the Israelis, who were always holding out for more.

But there’s another side to the revelations here for Israel, and they speak volumes about the way the Obama Administrations ideas, especially about a settlement freeze were received. Just to take one example, the huge row that ensued when Israel announced construction plans in the Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo when Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel takes on a new light.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

After all, from Israel’s point of view, the Ramat Shlomo area was relatively undeveloped and the Palestinians had already made it clear that they were willing to give it up. So what was the big deal about announcing construction there that was not going to start for months or years? Sure, to the public this might have seemed amiss, but the American and Palestinian negotiators were, the Israeli leaders thought, well aware that this was already decided as being Israeli territory in the event of a two-state solution.

Given that this Palestinian concession was not public, Israel surely expected a rebuke from the US, but the intensity of the furor, both from the Americans and the Palestinians probably did surprise them, given what we now know. But it is also an example of the problem inherent in negotiations between two such unequal parties: once the Palestinians brought up the matter for negotiations, Israel essentially “pocketed” the offer, feeling that the outcome of Ramat Shlomo, as well as Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo and all the other settlements in East Jerusalem was no longer in doubt.

Still, the overriding image that emerges from the leaked documents is the extent to which the Israeli argument that the Palestinians are not “partners” and are not willing “to make the difficult decisions for peace” rings hollow. The Palestinians were clearly advancing proposals that were serious; probably much more serious than the Israelis expected or were prepared to deal with.

The United States

If anyone still believes the US acts as an honest broker, the Papers will surely quell the last dying embers of that thought. Both Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton come through quite clearly as advocating Israeli positions and with less than sympathetic attitudes toward the Palestinians.

But the US actually faces some of the most immediate repercussions of the Palestine Papers. The upcoming vote in the UN Security Council on a PA-initiated resolution to condemn Israeli settlements now takes on more gravity.

The Papers make it clear that the process the US has sponsored for two decades has long since been without substance.

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, possibly demonstrating the extent of US efforts for peace

America has also been steadfast in keeping other world powers at arm’s length in the process. This has been supported by both the PA (which sees the US as the only power capable of delivering the goods, despite decades of America bending over backwards to help its ally, Israel) and Israel (which wants only US involvement so it faces minimal pressure and keeps its superpower ally at the table). US credibility, already tattered, desperately needs something to save it from complete destruction on this issue.

The UN resolution offers an opportunity to restore some small bit of that credibility. It is still unlikely that Obama will be willing to suffer the political slings and arrows he will get if we don’t veto it, but these developments do give him a bit more incentive to show some backbone here.

More than anything, though, the Papers demonstrate the emptiness of US policy here. Many Americans have finally come to understand that settling this conflict is a US strategic interest, and not a minor one. Yet our policy has failed to do that, while it has also failed in making Israelis feel more secure or stabilizing their neighborhood. One can understand Israeli reluctance to strike a deal. One can also understand that the PA has made poor choices in their tactical decision to rely on American largesse that they did not realize would never come.

But American policy, based on narrow domestic concerns far more than it should be given the geopolitical issues at stake here, has brought no benefit to this country. And, as I will soon explain, it has also run its course. A rethinking of our policy and tactics in the Middle East is no longer an option, it is a necessity.

The Peace Process

The ultimate casualty here is the Oslo process. It is, with the release of these documents, stripped naked and shown clearly to be nothing more than a show put on to maintain the status quo. In the years since the Oslo Accords were finalized in 1995, there have been any number of peace plans formulated: the Clinton Parameters, the Beilin-Abu Mazen Document, the Geneva Initiative, etc., all of which more or less had the same basic aspects. In 2008, the Palestinians clearly stepped well beyond those and conceded even more to Israel. Not only did those proposals go nowhere, but when Netanyahu took office, he refused to even discuss them, insisting instead on starting all over again.

The Palestine Papers make it very clear that the current formulation of bilateral talks brokered by the United States is completely futile. A new way forward must be found.

In response to the revelations in the Palestine Papers, there will be political and diplomatic upheaval. The US will initially try to maintain the current pointless process. This was made clear when State Department spokesman PJ Crowley sent out the following on Twitter: “The U.S. government is reviewing the alleged Palestinian documents released by Al-Jazeera today. We cannot vouch for their veracity. The U.S. remains focused on a two-state solution and will continue to work with the parties to narrow existing differences on core issues.”

Eventually, though, the US will have no choice but to re-think its strategy because too much else is likely to change.

I would make it clear here that I think the Palestine Papers will deliver the final blow to the “peace process” as we’ve known it, but I don’t think they have killed the two-state solution. It remains possible, if sufficient pressure is brought to bear on the parties, to find a two-state solution that will address the real needs of Israelis and Palestinians. But while it remains indeed possible, the Papers do make it harder to achieve.

Israelis and Palestinians will continue to negotiate eventually, but the nonsense about “partners for peace” is done. The solution will only be arrived at through a realistic approach that deals with negotiations for what they are: talks between adversaries aimed at settling their conflict.

It is impossible to say with certainty what form the future of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy will take. First, we have to see what becomes of the PA, and if it falls, what takes its place. What role will Hamas have in a future Palestinian leadership and with no other address to go to, what will the US and Israel make of that?

Perhaps too this will also help bring back some kind of significant Israeli peace movement, the sparks of which have begun to take shape in protests at Sheikh Jarrah and which seemed perhaps to begin to flower at the recent pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv. Or, perhaps it will embolden Israeli leadership even further, now that their “dialogue partner” has been embarrassed.

I do not believe the PA will survive this episode, but what effect that has on the future is impossible to predict. But the UN anti-settlement resolution has mobilized significant diplomatic support from many quarters, most notably Europe. If a PA-less Palestine creates a diplomatic vacuum, it is very possible that the forces that rush to fill it from outside the region could have a positive influence on the prospects for peace.

One thing is for certain…any attempt to continue business as usual is doomed to failure. The Palestine Papers have confirmed what so many of us have been saying for years: the process has been a sham with no real effort to bring about a resolution. It’s not really a debatable point anymore.

Reprinted from Mitchell Plitnick’s excellent blog, The Third Way, at http://mitchellplitnick.com/

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