The Palestine Papers

It is highly plausible that the Palestine Papers will only serve to prolong the conflict. But it is also possible that their publication could change things.
Dr. Ilan Zvi Baron
25 January 2011

After the First World War, President Wilson called for the abolition of secret diplomacy as a means to further international peace and cooperation. This was the first of his fourteen points and it is very much in this spirit that Wikileaks functions and that the Palestine Papers were released. The big question that ultimately needs to be asked is whether or not the publication of these Papers is going to make any difference. Regardless of whether or not the Papers are genuine, it is highly plausible that the Palestine Papers will only serve to prolong the conflict. However, the benefit of the Papers is that they reveal that if a solution is going to be arrived at, some real “creative thinking” is going to be necessary. There are five issues here.

First, the Palestine Papers have not revealed that much which we did not already suspect, although the response to their publication is in itself interesting. The United States, most likely frustrated by yet another leak, is claiming that the papers harm the negotiating process. The Palestinians at first claimed that the documents were fabrications but are now claiming that they have been taken out of context. Israeli responses have been mixed, with some claiming that the documents prove that there is no partner for peace, and others claiming the opposite: that the documents prove that there is a partner for peace. Ultimately, however, what the Palestine Papers demonstrate is that Israel is intransigent, the Palestinian negotiators are desperate, and the Americans are useless.

Second, if we examine the negotiations closely, what we discover is that the negotiators seem to have learned nothing in well over a decade of on/off dialogue. One of the original obstacles in the peace process was that the Palestinians consistently wanted to address historical injustices while the Israelis wanted to resolve contemporary security and political challenges. In other words, the Palestinians focused on the past in order to resolve the present, and the Israelis focused on the present in order to escape the past. Consequently, one would presume that this question over historical narratives in the negotiations would not still be the opening salvo in a 2008 discussion. Yet, on May 29, 2008 in the King David Hotel, the Israeli negotiator Udi Dekel makes the statement that, “We understand your narrative but we do not accept it and I know that you won’t change it and we have our own narrative and we won’t change it either.” Samir Al-Abed responds to Dekel’s attempt at removing the debate about narratives from the discussion by raising the importance of narratives for the discussion. Consequently, and tragically, the practice in effect replicates the discourse. Israelis do not want to get into a discussion about the past in order to resolve the present, while the Palestinians cannot avoid discussing the past in order to resolve the present, and so nothing gets resolved.

Narratives come up more than once in the Papers, and interestingly not only in between the Israelis and Palestinians. On June 15, 2008, at the Inpal Hotel in Jerusalem, Condoleeza Rice’s only real contribution to the discussions is to refer to a narrative her father used about waiting a day before asking a difficult question, since if you wait the answer may change from “no” to “maybe.” While this might seem like a good negotiating tactic, for someone with her authority it comes across as incredibly weak. Rice claims that “it is possible to reach an agreement by the end of the year”, and then offers nothing constructive to indicate how the United States would encourage such an outcome. Rice’s more telling statement was that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis would need to worry about security concerns from the East because the American forces are in Iraq and “will stay there for a long time.” Consequently, and third, the actual impact of American participation in the negotiations seems to be almost unbelievably minimal. American influence in the process comes across as generally lacking, even though it was American pressure that brought Israel to Madrid in 1991.

Fourth, throughout the negotiations the settlement issue arises, with the various participants in the negotiations constantly uttering the refrain about “being creative.” This refrain seems to be a shorthand for delaying discussion of a difficult topic. However, there really is no creative thinking taking place in any of the negotiations (at least as revealed in the Papers published so far). To be fair, the Palestinians did go quite far in their offers, apparently further than at Camp David, and the Papers include statements attesting to this. However, the tragedy here is that if the Palestinians are prepared to go this far, they missed an opportunity at Camp David, when Israel had a government that was more Dove than Hawk. This failure, complemented by the Palestinians increasing compromises as demonstrated in the Papers, encourages the Hawkish view that the longer Israel waits, the more the Palestinians will have to relinquish.

Subsequently, and fifth, while the level of Palestinian compromise is provoking some anger, what is surely the greatest problem in all of this is that the Palestinian negotiators realize that they suffer from a credibility problem and the Israeli negotiators know that they are in the position of authority. The net result is to tell us what we all knew already: there is a serious absence of leadership in the region that is both able and willing to deliver a peace agreement. Considering how close a peace agreement was, as presented in the Papers the negotiators claimed more than once that they sought an agreement within a year, the tragedy here is immense.

The Papers demonstrate that one of the reasons for the failure of the peace process is with the leadership. It is not only the credibility of the Palestinian negotiators, both in being able to deliver what they negotiate and having the credibility necessary to represent the Palestinian people, that is at issue here. What is also at issue is the ability of an Israeli government to negotiate in good faith and to implement its negotiated agreements. In this regard, the Israeli political system provides a disproportionate amount of influence to minority parties, thus hobbling the ability of a minority government to implement a negotiated agreement. What Israel requires is an electoral system that delivers a majority government and reduces the influence of minority parties. There was an attempt in the 1990s toward electoral reform by enabling direct voting of the Prime Minister, but it did not work and was repealed. A significant concern, however, is that electoral reform would impact Israel’s politics in many ways, not just in regard to negotiations.

Will the release of the papers encourage a new peace process? This is unlikely. Nevertheless, it is possible that the Palestine Papers could change things. Palestinian leadership will need to regain popular credibility, and Israel will need to recognize and accept how far the Palestinians have come as a peace partner. Ironically, however, what is likely to happen is that the Israeli position will have to become less intransigent while the Palestinians will need to become less flexible. The Israelis will need to account for not making more out of generous Palestinian offers, but the Palestinians will need to backtrack – as the defensive reaction on the part of the Palestinian leadership attests to.

Perhaps a better outcome will happen: both sides will see how close peace was and try to reach it. However, this would involve some real creative thinking, not postponing difficult decisions, and a serious commitment on the part of the United States to, as Abba Eban once said in a different context, prevent any further “opportunities to miss an opportunity.” 

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