- By Amjad AtallahAmjad Atallah and Daniel Levy are co-directors of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.
Al Jazeera English (AJE) broke a story on Sunday that may have the same emotive impact among Palestinians that the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi had in Tunisia (also heavily reported by AJE). That story came in the form of over 1,600 documents apparently from the Palestinian negotiating support unit that detail meeting after meeting of Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. officials over a decade (AJE has set up a transparency unit with some of the documents available).
The first batch of revelations show that the Palestinian negotiators were willing to concede to the ethnic partition of Jerusalem (except for the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in Jabel Abu Ghneim) and to consider suspending resolution of the sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
There are also documents that show that the Palestinians were prepared to accept continued Israeli security control over the future Palestinian state. There is also depiction of a "napkin map" drawn by President Mahmoud Abbas after former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented a map of land swaps that were not based on a 1:1 exchange.
Perhaps even more problematic for Palestinian negotiators, the documents show a level of deference and desperation toward the Israeli negotiators, especially Tzipi Livni, that stands in stark contrast to the public statements of Palestinian officials.
I was one of the legal advisors for the Palestinian negotiating team from November 2000 to November 2003 and took my fair share of minutes and notes, though the Taba talks in 2001 were the only formal permanent status negotiations during my stint.
This story is only beginning and it’s impossible to predict where it will lead, but I think there are three points that stand out right away from the analysis and revelations in both AJE and the Guardian newspaper (which has also had access to the documents.)
The first is that the documents kill, with great gusto, the myth created by President Bill Clinton that the Palestinians were not a partner at Camp David and that Palestinians were to blame for the lack of a two-state deal. I knew this of course from being there, but apparently 10 years of documents showing Palestinian concessions that would be shocking to the Palestinian public mean that you would have to be ideologically committed to ignoring reality to still think the Palestinians were the problem.
I don’t know what the ramifications of this will be in the United States or Europe, but if there is no impact on Western policy it will confirm that a United States deferential only to Israel and a Europe deferential only to the United States cannot be part of the solution.
The second point is that the Palestinian negotiating team, composed of literally a handful of men, will no longer be able to continue with business as usual. Palestinian negotiations were based on three assumptions: The first is that Israel actually wants a two-state deal; the second is that even if Israel did not, the United States would be able to pressure it into acting in its own self-interest (at least as the Americans and Palestinians saw it); and third that Palestinians had no alternative to never-ending negotiations.
It is doubtful that Palestinians will be able to continue maintaining those assumptions.
The third and final point is that the context of these leaks comes at a time when its impact may be amplified. WikiLeaks’ data dump of U.S. diplomatic records; the demonstrations in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen; and Hezbollah’s success in Lebanon have created an atmosphere of empowerment among a normally dispirited Arab public. Change is no longer impossible — and the United States no longer needs to be the agent of change.
This means there may be more exhibitions of "people power" with unpredictable consequences. The Arab authoritarian systems (most with the support of the U.S. government) are ill-equipped to deal positively with this type of demand for change.
Different forces in the region will now begin to see how they can take advantage for good or bad from this new reality. Unfortunately, if the United States stays true to form, we’ll simply struggle to see whether we can maintain the status quo.
AJE and the Guardian will be releasing more analysis today and in the coming days. Americans may be focusing on President Obama’s State of the Union speech, but the focus of much of the world audience will probably be elsewhere.
Amjad Atallah directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel