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The Palestine Papers, or How Everything You Thought You Knew About the Peace Process Was Wrong

Common wisdom is that the 20-year-old peace process has been edging towards a two-state solution

Common wisdom is that the 20-year-old peace process has been edging towards a two-state solution, based on a formula that half the world can recite verbatim: borders following the pre-1967-war armistice line with minor and mutual adjustments, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and a land bridge between Gaza and the West Bank, with refugees either repatriated or given adequate compensation. Common wisdom has frequently assumed that resolution has been prevented by Palestinian rejectionism, as the Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators make one unreasonable demand after another to their Israeli counterparts, while American mediators helplessly try to cajole the two sides closer and closer to peace.

With the publication of the Palestine Papers – a massive document trove leaked to Qatar-based Al Jazeera consisting of 1600 maps, meeting minutes, transcripts, strategy reports and various other documents from the Palestinian negotiating team – what used to be common wisdom should now, very publicly, be understood as common delusion.

What the American press presented as peace negotiations facilitated by an impartial American government are now clearly perceptible as negotiations over the terms of surrender. Waving the white flag was Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, speaking for the PA. Dictating the terms of surrender were various Israeli governments, from Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni to Benyamin Netanyahu. And pushing along the process with humiliating prods were American negotiators like Condoleezza Rice and George Mitchell.

On every conceivable front, Palestinian negotiators prepared to concede baseline Palestinian demands. And on every conceivable front, those concessions were met with Israeli counteroffers to treble the concessions, and then with American calls for compromise between what were already compromised Palestinian positions and the bigger compromises Israeli negotiators demanded.

Take the simplest area of conflict: the size of the Palestinian state. It’s deliberately obscured history, but in 1988, the Palestinian National Council made what many call its “historic compromise,” through the Algiers Declaration: recognition of Israel in exchange for a rump state on 22 percent of historic Palestine.

In March 2008, 20 years later, Udi Dekel, Olmert’s chief negotiator, insisted that, “We don’t see the 1967 border as a reference.” Later that month, he added that “the parameters are facts on the ground.” With such “facts” – and not the internationally recognized Green Line, or the post-1949-armistice line – taken as a starting point, Livni would insist in June that the “7.3 percent offer [of the West Bank] by Olmert is the most generous, and will be perceived by Israelis as the most fair.” The Palestinian offer also deviated from the pre-1967-armistice lines. As Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, or Abu Ala, put it, “We offered 1.9 percent. It is reasonable. We included the settlements inside Jerusalem – Pisgat Zeev, etc. It’s the first time!”

Israeli negotiators, however, insisted that the willingness to cede 1.9 percent of 22 percent of the 100 percent of historic Palestine that had been Palestinian territory before 1948 was insufficient. As Dekel explained, “We are not talking about ‘giving’ and ‘taking’ … we are talking about realities…. We didn’t take anything from you. No Palestinian state existed before.” The issue was not Palestinian intransigence, as is frequently portrayed in the American press. The issue was and is Israeli denial of even minimal Palestinian national aspirations.

As Livni said in May 2008 when she asked Palestinian negotiators why they insisted on a maximum of two percentage points of the West Bank to be given to Israel in any settlement, “Why do you insist on 98 percent? Why not 92 percent? … My question is why you cannot have a state that represents most of your aspirations?” Dekel added that the Israeli point of view was that Israel has rights to the land it illegally occupied and illegally built on beyond the 1949 armistice lines, emphasizing that, “You believe 242 says rights and that settlements are illegal; we don’t. We believe we have rights in these territories. The way we see it, we need to make mutual concessions. We don’t see that we have something to give back to you. We are not of the position that we took something from you that we have to give back.”

What the Israelis reject are Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which emphasize the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by means of force. Israeli rejection of international law is not just tacit. As Dekel put it in March of 2008, “The international community is not relevant here … we are agreeing with you on the border between us.”

Debates about borders inevitably go hand in hand with debates about Jerusalem, the epicenter of the conflict. East Jerusalem, it is generally agreed, would be the capital of any Palestinian state in a two-state resolution. It’s the hub of Palestinian cultural and intellectual life, the home of Palestinian and Muslim holy sites. And it’s also been increasingly encircled by a belt of settlements that nearly cuts it off from the rest of the West Bank.

Palestinian negotiators said, in the words of Erekat, that “It is no secret that on our map we proposed we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history,” tellingly using the Hebrew word for Jerusalem rather than the Arabic word, Al Quds. What the Palestinian negotiators could not offer was Maale Adumim, a massive settlement bloc situated east of East Jerusalem, which very nearly seals off the capital of the seemingly stillborn Palestinian state.

Aware that Maale Adumim might nearly sever East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, Dekel insisted in February 2008 that, “The situation is difficult, and that is why we have to be creative.” By “creative,” Dekel meant to refer to what Israeli negotiators call “functional contiguity,” or contiguity by means of tunnels or rail systems. Livni’s response was that, “God gave us bad cards to play with,” as though the expansion of settlements east of East Jerusalem was an inexorable organic progression rather than conscious Israeli policy. Nonetheless, Livni insisted, “the idea we have is not to block Jerusalem completely.”

In response to Livni, Abu Ala replied: “We do not want to live in enclaves.”

The Israeli negotiating position in response to this dispute is revealing. When, in a rare show of rashness, PA negotiator Khalid Elgindy said, “When you say tunnels, would you consider connecting your settlements with the same kind of tunnels that you propose – and are actually building on the ground – for Palestinian villages that are separated?” Israeli negotiator Danny Tirza responded, “Yes. We can consider.” Elgindy then asked: “So why aren’t you connecting them using tunnels? Why take empty land to connect the settlements?” to which Tirza responded again, “Because we have security concerns. Tunnels are present [sic] a security concern. We don’t frighten you.”

The notion that Palestinians – lightly armed, under military occupation for 44 years, under siege and without even a mechanized army – do not have security concerns, while Israel – the regional titan with a nuclear trump card – does, is not credible, and makes it still clearer that the approach Israeli negotiators were taking to the negotiations was not compromise but rather the presumption that Palestinians would cave in to Israeli demands.

To get a sense of the Bush administration’s light-touched brokering in reaction to this impasse – the impossibility of Palestinians accepting a Jerusalem cantonized by Maale Adumim and the Israeli refusal to extricate its illegal settlers from the illegal settlement – Rice said in July 2008 that, “I don’t think any Israeli leader is going to cede Maale Addunim [sic].” Abu Ala responded: “Or any Palestinian leader.” To which Rice responded, “Then you won’t have a state!” later adding, “Both states will be ugly…. I don’t think 7.3 is the number. But 1.9 or 2.3 is not…. I think you will have to find an answer to Maale Addunim [sic]. And we will need to find an answer to Ariel.”

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The “7.3” Rice referred to is the percentage of prime West Bank land Israeli negotiators wanted to annex in return for land swaps abutting the Negev in the southern part of the West Bank or near the Gaza Strip; the “1.9” was the Palestinian counteroffer. Rice was insisting that Palestinians accept the unacceptable enclosure of East Jerusalem while promising to do something about Ariel, another Israeli settlement further north that juts a full eight kilometers into the West Bank. It is the frequent occurrences of this kind of American good-faith facilitation that has prompted commentators to refer to America as “Israel’s lawyer.”

An accurate depiction, as long as we remember that lawyers sometimes push their clients slightly beyond their preferred negotiation positions. As Rice insisted in July 2008, “On security and borders, they need to come to you. But on borders, you need to move too…. They made an offer; it’s not good, but it’s not bad…. Are you really going to stop a Palestinian state on a few percentages?” With the magnitude of the projected Israeli state four times that of the Palestinian state, Rice’s question betrays the partisanship of the American negotiating team, a political position that has led Noam Chomsky to argue that “serious negotiations would be conducted by some neutral party, with the US and Israel on one side, and the world on the other.”

The PA also made a large concession on refugees, a touchstone of the struggle – roughly as many Palestinians live outside of the borders of historic Palestine as within them, and two-thirds of Gaza’s population is made up of refugees or their descendants. A 2007 PA internal memo argued for a symbolic 10,000 refugees to return to Israel each year, pending Israeli approval of ongoing renewal of the policy. Crushingly overpopulated Gaza alone produces 60,000 new children a year, most of whom have legal refugee status.

For Israel, where Al Nakba – the Palestinian’s word for the 1947-1949 bout of ethnic cleansing that removed them from their homeland – is still fiercely disputed, even that diluted demand was met with angry commentary from Israeli negotiators. Tal Becker commented in June 2008 that, “We have a major area of disagreement about responsibility. In our point of view, this is basically asking us to take on their narrative.” Or, as Livni said later that year, denying Israeli responsibility, “Return; I think that the answer is the Palestinian state.” Later, Israel would offer the right of return to 1,000 refugees each year, a number amounting to little more than a rounding error.

Rice, the American “honest broker,” later commented that, “The refugee mechanism cannot possibly be so sensitive!” adding that, “Bad things happen to people all around the world all the time. You need to look forward. The first compensation is a state…. Israel had to put away some of their aspirations, like taking all of ‘Judea and Samaria.'” Meanwhile, PA negotiators kept on conceding to most of the Israeli positions. Unelected president Mahmoud Abbas stated that, “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million – that would mean the end of Israel.” Abbas took an only slightly firmer stance in reaction to the Israeli offer of 5,000 refugees over five years. “This is even less than family reunification and is not acceptable,” Abbas said.

What’s most striking when reading through the archives is to see that Israeli rejectionism was accompanied by Israeli humiliation of the Palestinian negotiators and Palestinian kowtowing to the Israelis. As Livni said in November 2007, when Palestinian negotiators threw up their hands in frustration at the impossibility of dealing with their Israeli counterparts and said they’d just fight for one state, “There is also two states, with one on the other side of the Jordan.” Livni also said that Israel was making its fair share of negotiations, in particular reprising the Palestinian “historic compromise” of 1988 in which it recognized Israel. “We did not want to say that there is a ‘Palestinian people,” she said. Israeli negotiators were clearly willing to cross theretofore uncrossable lines at Annapolis.

The pattern is clear: Israeli maximalism is met with a counteroffer that moves some way away from minimal Palestinian demands towards maximal Israeli demands. That counteroffer is then rejected by Israel, and the rejection is encouraged by the American peace brokers. With the publication of the Palestine Papers, no one can ever again say – without lying – that the problem is Palestinian rejectionism in the face of Israeli accommodationism. Clearly, the problem is the reverse – or worse.

By letting Israel encroach on core Palestinian national demands, writes former negotiator and Oxford professor Karma Nabulsi, “A small group of men who have polluted the Palestinian public sphere with their private activities are now exposed.” Nabulsi added that, “The release into the public domain of these documents is such a landmark because it destroys the final traces of credibility of the peace process,” as well as the American self-appointed role as a reliable interlocutor of the mutual interests of Israelis and Palestinians. Endless talking, wheeling, dealing, document-drafting, conferring and jet-setting: that has been the peace process, now frequently referred to as an “industry” by dispassionate observers.

Like any industry, the most important concern has been to keep its gears whirring smoothly along. One of the gears is Israel. Another is America. And the third, against a common misunderstanding, is not the Palestinian people, but their unelected rulers: the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Annapolis and the subsequent Obama efforts have been attempts – perhaps half-hearted – to bring to fruition the failed Oslo process: the creation of a Palestinian collaborator class to manage the occupation for Israel, and to serve as a beachhead for normalization of Israel in the Middle East. In the process, this collaborator class would secure enough stability to enable the continuance of the Arab dictatorships, especially the crown jewel, Saudi Arabia, and a Middle East free-trade zone administered from the Gulf sheikhdoms and Tel Aviv.

As Adam Hanieh of the School of Oriental and African Studies comments, in that failed vision, the PA was to have played “the role of policing the several-million-strong reserve army of labor locked behind the walls and checkpoints of the Palestinian territories. In return, the PA leadership will wield the trappings of a state, obtain for itself the privileges to travel and move freely, and earn a stake in the profits that flow” from the free-trade zones where global capital, flowing through Tel Aviv, could profit from captive and desperate Palestinian labor. Israel and the United States alike were generally willing to let the Palestinians have a demilitarized statelet with an economy totally dependent on that of its neighbor, and to describe it as they wished. And it is within that vision that one can understand Livni’s 2008 comment that, “I agree that post-Camp-David is a failure that none of us want,” and Abu Ala’s promise that, “We will also be the bridge for Israel to all countries in the region.” The PA went as far as it could to accommodate Israeli demands, but even for collaborators, there are limits: in this case, something they could sell to the underlying populace.

Indeed, Israel and the PA still pine for a negotiated outcome, even as they conflict on the particulars of borders, refugees and Jerusalem, but it’s probably too late. That’s why, as Cairo is awash in tear gas, aflame with Mubarak’s Molotov cocktails and teeming with military tanks massing on its streets, Israel is asking its regional allies to tone down criticism of the Mubarak government. And that’s why Netanyahu told his ministers, “We are closely monitoring events in Egypt and the region and are making efforts to preserve its security and stability.” He knows that a dictatorial Egypt guarding Israel’s southern flank is the best insurance for continuing the occupation or coddling the PA into selling out its people. Without Mubarak or a likeminded substitute – perhaps, they pray, as the situation in Egypt slips out of control, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, will maintain the peace treaty – a reconfiguration of the regional map looms, and with it will come an end to the Israeli occupation.

For that reason, among others, Israel and America are both hoping that Mubarak is able to beat back or tamp down his people’s revolutionary surge, or at least prevent any real change in the matrix of power in Egypt. As revolution and counterrevolution duel in Tahrir Square, the outcome of the struggle is far from determined. But one can be sure that Israel, the PA and America alike are watching closely and intervening as they can, desperate to put the regional system of Israeli-American domination in stasis, and worrying anxiously that the insurrection in Egypt will succeed and bring that system crashing down.

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