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The Palestine Papers: An end to the myth of Israel's generosity

Instead of going through the commentary on the recently released “Palestine Papers,” I suggest readers start by checking out some of the documents themselves. Even for those suspicious of the “generous Israeli offer vs. Arab rejectionism” narrative of the 2008 talks as I was, some of the documents are quite shocking.

Take, for example, this meeting, in which the Palestinian side learns that the Israeli negotiators wouldn’t agree to use 1967 borders even as a starting point (h/t Matt Duss):

Udi Dekel (Israel):     As you know, our guiding principles are UNSC Res. 242, the need for boundaries that can provide security for Israel, and we’re talking about the situation on the ground, as per Pres. Bush’s letter.

Samih al-Abed (Palestinian):      Do you mean the situation as it was then, or now?

UD:     Reality now… But we’re not going to argue.  We can’t change reality on the ground.  We don’t see the 1967 border as a reference, first because we don’t even know exactly where the line is.

SA:      We have all the maps that were signed by you.

UD:     But that wasn’t exactly the line on the ground.

SA:      If not the 1967 line, then what is your reference?

UD:     We said already, the situation on the ground.

And here Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insists on annexing the settlement of Ariel – which lies some 15 miles to the east of the Israeli border, deep in the West Bank:

Livni: The idea behind our desire to annex Ariel settlement was not to get more water but because thousands of people live there. We want to have an answer for those who have lived there for forty years.

Future borders will be complicated but clear. I have seen in Yugoslavia how areas can be connected. The matter is not simply giving a passport to settlers.

Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala): Having Ariel under our control means also that the water basin will be under our control.

Livni: We have said that even if we agreed to have Ariel under Israeli control, we have to find a solution to the water issue.

Abu Ala: We find this hard to swallow.

Rice:  Let us put Maale Adumim and Ariel aside. I am not trying to solve them here.

Or the now-famous Yerushalayim quote, in which Palestinian negotiator Dr. Sael Erakat used the Hebrew name when referring to Jerusalem:

Erekat: Israelis want the two-state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians. What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state… what more can I give?

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The obvious result of the massive leak of documents will be a blow to the Palestinian Authority’s credibility – most notably, to the public image of President Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.

The documents, published by Al Jazeera and the Guardian, reveal the extent of concessions offered by the Palestinian leadership at those talks, and expose the PLO leaders to charges of betrayal of the Palestinian cause – not so much because of the offers themselves, but more due to the tone used by the Palestinian negotiators (Erekat calling Prime Minister Sharon “our friend,” using the Hebrew name for Jerusalem, and more), and due to their cooperation with Israel in the persecution of Hamas activists. It’s not clear yet whether the Palestinian Authority leadership can survive this crisis.

Evaluating the effect of the Palestine Papers on the Israeli side is even harder.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably not suffer any damage on the home front, at least in the short term. Netanyahu might even use the papers to claim that his government’s construction projects in occupied East Jerusalem pose no threat to the peace process, since the Palestinians have already agreed to give up most of the Jewish neighborhoods in this part of the city.

The Israeli government could also benefit from a renewal of the internal war on the Palestinian side. For years, Israel has tried (and for the most part, succeeded) to break Palestinian society into sub-groups with different political interests and agendas. When those groups fight each other, the Palestinian cause suffers.

Yet from a wider perspective, the release of the Palestinian offers during the 2008 talks serves as proof that Israel in fact had a partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Actually, the question from now on will be whether Israel itself is a partner for an agreement. Furthermore, after the steps Palestinian and Israeli negotiators took towards each other in previous rounds of talks, the current Israeli offers, such as a temporary state on half of the West Bank’s territory, will appear cynical and unrealistic.

For years, Israel has used the peace process as a way to hold back international pressure on the Palestinian issue. It will be harder to do so from now on.  This will be Netanyahu’s greatest problem.

As far as the Israeli public is concerned, opposition leader Tzipi Livni comes out fine from the papers. Unlike the Palestinian negotiators, Livni can’t be accused of double talk. She presented the same hardline positions both in public and in private. Yet Livni will soon try to position herself as an alternative to the right-wing government of Netanyahu, which was a catalyst for Israel’s increased isolation in the world and damaged relations with the US. Given her attitude during the 2008 talks, how would Livni convince the Israeli public and the international community that she can succeed in negotiating a deal with the Palestinians?

More than anything, it’s the very notion that Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement on the two-state solution that suffered another tremendous blow (some people in the US administration apparently gave up on this even before the papers were released). Many people believe that Israel went as far as it could in the offers that were handed in 2008 to the Palestinians; now they may think that the Palestinians did the same, and yet the distance between the two parties remains too wide. It seems that Israeli leaders are simply unable to deliver the minimum required to solve the Palestinian problem. No wonder that one of the first Israeli politicians to comment on the papers was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that the documents proved a final agreement was impossible to achieve.

Even for those who don’t subscribe to Lieberman’s ideas, it’s clear that a new approach is needed. Will it be the unilateralism president Abbas is promoting, the mounting international pressure on Israel, the “nation building” effort by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, or even another Palestinian uprising that changes the political dynamic? Only time will tell.

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    1. Sinjim

      Did you catch this exchange from the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/23/palestinian-papers-fig-leaf-editorial?CMP=twt_fd):

      “When Mr Erekat asked Ms Livni: ‘Short of your jet fighters in my sky and your army on my territory, can I choose where I secure external defence?’. She replied: ‘No. In order to create your state you have to agree in advance with Israel – you have to choose not to have the right of choice afterwards. These are the basic pillars.'”

      The Palestinians have to choose to give up choice. I think that captures the underlying basis of all the demands of Israeli governments that participated in the “peace process.”

      Reply to Comment
    2. michael

      All the hype over papers is unclear. What is surprise here? The Palestinian “leadership” can’t say no to Israelis because it was not elected by Palestinian people but rather enforced on that poor people by Israel and US. It is no wonder Erecat labeled Sharon “friend”. Whom else would he call so? It is only due to Sharon and Americans Erecat and all his gang are not beggars in the markets of Cairo. This “leadership” does represent nobody and it is only goal is keeping forever the endless negotiations and receiving Israeli cash and different kinds of support which follow them. The Palestinian “leaders” did never want to establish the Palestinian state. Overall, the very idea of such a state is rather of Western intellectuals and Israeli Left than of Palestinian Arabs themselves. Palestinian state is bound to be failed state just like all the Arab world, and no Palestinian “leader” who is usually rich and corrupt man accustomed to joyful Israeli-financed Western-styled life far away from his poor and hungry “nation” would wish in his true mind to establish such state. He is also well aware that in case of democratic elections the most radical leaders, like Hamas, would be brought to the top. So, why establish any state?
      To our disaster, Palestinians are in no way consist society or nation. They have no cause or common national dream. They are but tribes who fight each other (like all the Arab and Muslim world) and it is unfair to accuse Israel in succeeding with breaking the Palestinian society. Because there is nothing to break there.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Y.

      “Yet from a wider perspective, the release of the Palestinian offers during the 2008 talks serves as proof that Israel in fact had a partner for peace on the Palestinian side.”

      Err.. what offers of peace do you talk about? There were negotiations, where both sides had often conflicting positions (not ‘offers’, in the sense of ‘if you accept this, we’ll sign a peace agreement’). When the time to conclude the negotiations had come (because the Israeli government’s time was due), the Palestinians didn’t agree to Olmert’s offer of peace, much less give an (counter)offer of peace to Olmert.

      Actually, looking at how far Olmert has bended to Palestinian negotiation positions in that offer, their refusal looks quite mysterious (unless they were not negotiating in good faith).

      “As far as the Israeli public is concerned, opposition leader Tzipi Livni comes out fine from the papers. Unlike the Palestinian negotiators, Livni can’t be accused of double talk.”

      I beg to differ. Livni has provided lots of double talk. For example, Livni has stated no Palestinian refugees will be accepted by Israel in a final agreement (e.g. [1]). This despite being involved in negotiating an agreement which would have let at least a certain number get in! Similarly, she apparently has floated some proposals similar to Lieberman’s, while seemingly deploring him as an extremist (he’s actually a demagogue, but nevermind that).

      [1]
      http://news.walla.co.il/?w=/13034/1426562

      P.S. congrats on getting Labour right. My excuse is that Barak’s move was entirely out of the blue.

      Reply to Comment