Far from a triumph for transparency, the Palestine Papers are a victory for the enemies of peace in the Middle East -- but only if Palestinian leaders embrace Al Jazeera's narrative.
The Palestine Papers — more than 1,600 internal Palestinian documents summarizing negotiations with Israel over the past decade — are no "Palestinian WikiLeaks" aimed at bringing transparency and good government to the Palestinian Authority. Rather, they are a direct attack on the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), its negotiators, and the very idea of negotiating peace with Israel.
The documents were apparently provided to Al Jazeera by disgruntled Palestinians who set out to harm the PLO leadership and their peaceful path toward realizing Palestinian national goals. The Qatar-based satellite network has played along, insinuating that the documents show that the Palestinian leadership has proved weak and willing to capitulate to Israeli desires. On the documents pertaining to Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, it laments that Palestinian negotiators "gave away almost everything to the Israelis, without pressuring them for concessions or compromise."
Palestinian leaders have done a lamentable job of preparing their public for the types of concessions necessary for an enduring Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Accordingly, the far-reaching compromises that were under discussion will likely come as a shock to many on the streets of Ramallah and Hebron. The ensuing outrage, unfortunately, makes it possible that the leakers could sabotage the peace process, as they seem to have intended.
It would be mistaken, however, to draw conclusions about the course of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the documents released so far. This is not the equivalent of the National Archives opening up the public record for scholars to reconstruct the diplomatic narrative. Only a few documents have been publicly released to date, which means that any context for the discussions is absent. According to my Palestinian sources, more documents are likely to be posted online in piecemeal fashion over the days ahead.
The first batch of documents focuses largely on the 2008 final-status negotiations between the PLO and Ehud Olmert’s government that followed the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007. They are meant to demonstrate that Palestinian negotiators are desperate quislings, willing to cooperate shamelessly with the Israeli occupiers, while selling out sacrosanct Palestinian positions on the status of Jerusalem and the "right of return."
However, the documents actually show that the Annapolis process had succeeded in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, under U.S. leadership, to discuss the most sensitive issues that divide them. They show flexibility, agility, and candor on both sides of the debate. "It actually makes me proud of my leadership. It showed that they are smart, subtle, and know what they are doing," one non-affiliated Palestinian told me today. "I just wish they let us know that this is the case."
Negotiations are conducted confidentially for a reason. A degree of secrecy allows parties to explore positions without necessarily locking themselves into a particular stance. But readers of these documents should keep in mind that these discussions operate under the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
The line put forward to date, eagerly advanced by Al Jazeera, insinuates that the Palestinians were willing to give away Jerusalem for nothing. Al Jazeera’s website featured a huge, above-the-fold photo of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat next to the quote: "We are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history," suggesting his willingness to deal away what Palestinians expect to be their future capital. The documents do not discuss the Israeli concessions that would have led him to follow through on that offer.
Moreover, it has been known now for years that the Olmert government had at the same time put forward the most ambitious compromises of any Israeli government. Olmert agreed to withdraw from essentially the entire West Bank based on the 1967 Green Line, after border modifications. None of that is noted in the documents today. Nor do the documents note that the positions explored by the Palestinians on Jerusalem were essentially those put forward by President Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency in December 2000. In what has come to be known as the Clinton parameters, he outlined the "general principle" that Arab areas of Jerusalem would be part of a Palestinian state, while Jewish areas would be included in Israel.
Despite Al Jazeera’s spin and that of those Palestinians who still cling to the chimera of "armed resistance" as the way to force Israeli concessions, these documents reveal a more optimistic story — that the two parties negotiated in earnest and established trust between them. Indeed, more than two years after the negotiations came to an end, none of the negotiators on either side leaked the content of their discussions. Ultimately, the peace processors ran out of time — Olmert’s government was plagued by scandal and eventually collapsed during the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration. We can’t know if time would have allowed them to close the gaps. But now we do know that they were seriously trying.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the release of the Palestine Papers promises to complicate the Obama administration’s already near-impossible effort to revive the Middle East peace process. The PLO leadership is now on the defensive and will seek to demonstrate its nationalist resolve by staking out very tough conditions for it to return to the negotiating table.
But though the documents represent a threat to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiating team in the short term, they also represent a strategic opportunity. Rather than responding defensively, they should aggressively challenge Al Jazeera’s attempt to undercut the PLO in its bid to reach accommodation with Israel. These papers show that Palestinian leaders have taken bold steps in private to forge a negotiated settlement. Now, it is time they publicly embraced the notion that they are serious about making concessions for peace.