Can the Mideast peace process survive the release of secret Palestinian papers?By Aaron David Miller
This commentary was published in The Los Angeles Times on 26/01/2011
Somebody up there must really hate the Arab-Israeli peace process. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, that the odds against serious negotiations couldn't get any longer and the hope for a two-state solution couldn't be more forlorn, we now have the Palestinian version of WikiLeaks.
The documents obtained and released this week by Al Jazeera — assuming their authenticity — don't mean the end of the peace process (that never ends). But the revelations are deeply embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority and will put a chill on pragmatism and creativity for a while. More important, the episode reflects some serious underlying problems with the negotiating process, which will make quick or easy progress unlikely anytime soon.
First, a little reality therapy. Anyone who has seriously followed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for at least the last decade would not have been surprised by the positions ascribed to the Palestinians: willingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty over disputed neighborhoods/settlements in East Jerusalem; territorial swaps; limits on the number of returning refugees. They have been in the public domain in one form or another since the Camp David summit of July 2000.
Revealing them in "official documents" clearly puts them in a different light. But anybody who has been really paying attention would never conclude that the Palestinian Authority's negotiators suddenly decided to sell out the Palestinian patrimony or betray Palestinian national aspirations. The Palestinian positions contained in these documents constitute the public parameters within which mainstream Israelis, Palestinians and American negotiators have been operating.
Then there is the question of what these positions really represent. At no point in the last 10 years have Israelis and Palestinians been close to an agreement. The documents reflect a particularly fertile period of exchanges between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But no agreement was reached, nor were any authoritative conclusions that bound either Israel or the Palestinian Authority, or for that matter the United States.
Indeed, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators live and die by the "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" rule. That enables a negotiator to probe, offer up all kinds of positions and trial balloons, and to look for flexibility by demonstrating your own. All of this can occur without committing yourself to positions locked into concrete. Nobody was selling the farm or giving away the store. They were negotiating.
The timing of the leaks also has to be considered in judging the reaction to them. Had these leaks occurred when the situation was more hopeful, it would have been much less of a story. If Israelis and Palestinians were closer to announcing agreement that East Jerusalem would be the capital of the new Palestinian state, for example, the fact that Palestinians had agreed to allow the Israelis sovereignty over certain areas would have been far less controversial. Despair and hopelessness fills the air these days, and the leakers took advantage of that.
Unfortunately, we live in a world — and not just in the dysfunctional Middle East — in which perception is reality. These documents — and any that follow, particularly if they highlight anything that looks like collusion between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — will damage Abbas' credibility and buck up his internal opposition and Hamas.
The leaks also point out several serious problems in the negotiations.
First, there's no doubt that the gap is large between what Palestinian Authority negotiators purportedly were offering and what is acceptable on the Palestinian street and according to its narrative. The differences are not only between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but among Palestinians. The fact that the Palestinians today are like Noah's Ark, with two of everything — two polities (Gaza and the West Bank), two security services, two sets of funders — is part of the problem. But the main issue is that neither the Palestinian Authority nor the government of Israel has done nearly enough to condition their respective publics about the tough choices that need to be made if an agreement is to be reached.
Second, this isn't just a Palestinian story. The documents don't really reveal much about the Israeli positions on core issues. We know that Olmert was prepared to go further than any of his predecessors on all of these issues. But the storyline that is left is that the Israelis offered nothing in return on the key issues. And the logic of the moment would seem to argue: If the Palestinians were so flexible, why didn't you grab the deal? You really do have a Palestinian partner. As harmful as these leaks are to Palestinians, the Israelis don't look very good either.
Finally, these revelations are bound to have a chilling effect on a process already in the deep freeze. Palestinians will be looking over their shoulder before they risk additional creative, clever or pragmatic compromises. And the Obama administration is going to have an even tougher time extracting much flexibility from either side.
An Israeli negotiator once told me that you could be dead, or dead and buried. The peace process is just dead. It will be back with another life, but the complications in the wake of these leaks don't suggest a lot of confidence that that life will be a long or robust one.
Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace."