Stephen M. Walt

On the ‘Palestine Papers’

There is an awful lot of unpredictable stuff going on right now — Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc. — and I haven’t had time to comment at length on the "Palestine Papers" that were leaked to Al Jazeera and released earlier this week. So here are a few quick reactions, based on a less-than-complete survey of the ...

There is an awful lot of unpredictable stuff going on right now — Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, etc. — and I haven’t had time to comment at length on the "Palestine Papers" that were leaked to Al Jazeera and released earlier this week. So here are a few quick reactions, based on a less-than-complete survey of the documents (which you can find here), and some perusal of the commentary surrounding them.

For starters, a caveat. As with the various WikiLeaks revelations, it’s a mistake to view these documents (which detail all sorts of confidential negotiations) as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." For one thing, the leaked documents are the Palestinians’ record of these events, and even if they are being scrupulously honest (and they probably were, insofar as these were internal records), the other participants might have seen or heard the conversations differently. You know, the old Rashomon effect. As far as I know, nobody has successfully impugned their accuracy (the PA tried to do so at first, but soon dropped that approach), but these exchanges are hardly the sum total of the diplomatic record. They offer lots of revealing information, but they need to be read in context and supplemented with other sources.

Second, the above caveat notwithstanding, the documents put to death the idea that Israel has no Palestinian "partner for peace." On the contrary, they reveal a PA leadership that is desperate for peace — sometimes to the point of being craven — and getting no help at all from the Israelis and precious little from the United States. They keep offering various concessions and trying different formulas, and get bupkus in return. Indeed, even when they might think they’ve obtained something of value — such as Condi Rice’s pledge that the 1967 borders will be the baseline for negotiations and territorial swaps — they find that the next set of U.S. negotiators take it away with scarcely a backward glance.

In this sense, the documents also expose the bipartisan and binational strategy that Israel and the United States have followed under both Bush and Obama: to keep putting pressure on the Palestinians to cut a one-sided deal. And if you thought George Mitchell was acting like an evenhanded mediator, think again: He keeps leaning on the Palestinians to get back to the table, to accept a less-than-complete settlement freeze, etc., yet there’s no hint of any pressure on the Israeli side.

Third, I can’t make up my mind about the PA itself. A good case can be made that they’ve become complicit in the occupation and that the much-heralded "Fayyadism" — building state institutions, emphasizing development and normalcy, and cracking down on "extremists" — has put them in the role of doing Israel’s dirty work for it, but with little to show for it. (That’s a familiar strategy for a colonial power: find local elites who like holding positions of power and use them as your local agents). And the fact that Abbas and Fayyad have exceeded their terms of office yet refused to hold new elections reinforces that case. Yet I’m reluctant to condemn them for this response, both because the Palestinians do need more effective institutions and because they had precious few cards to play. Another intifada was only going to make things worse.

Fourth, these releases can also be read as the final obituary for the Oslo peace process. Lord knows it had been on life support for years, and most analysts have already understood it was going nowhere. In that sense, these documents aren’t really revelatory: They merely confirm what most of us had suspected ever since Obama began walking back from the Cairo speech. But what I’ve argued before is now abundantly clear: The Palestinians aren’t going to accept anything less than a viable state (plus at least symbolic acknowledgement of a "right of return"), and Israel isn’t going to offer them anything remotely close to that. (See Jeremy Pressman here for further details on the difficulties.) It’s equally clear that the United States is incapable of acting like an honest broker on this issue, despite its importance to our broader security position. That means no "two states for two peoples," which in turn means that some future U.S. president is going to face some really awkward choices.

And if we step back and take a larger and longer view, it begins to look like the U.S. position in the Middle East, which seemed so dominant after the fall of the USSR and the first Gulf War, is now crumbling. Hezbollah just formed a government in Lebanon, possibly after the United States convinced former PM Saad Hariri to go back on a compromise deal over the U.N. tribunal investigating the murder of his father. Iraq is now governed by a Shiite government with extensive links to Iran and is denying the U.S. any future military role there. A democratic government in Turkey, while not anti-American, is charting an independent course. The Mubarak government in Egypt, long a close U.S. client, has been shaken, and even if it survives the current turmoil, its long-term status is up for grabs.

The problem is this: The United States has no idea how to deal with a Middle East where the voice of the people might actually be heard, rather than being subject to the writ of various aging potentates. And having followed policies for decades that are unpopular with most of those same people, we may be about to reap the whirlwind.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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