While the release by Al Jazeera on Sunday of over 1600 documents relating to a decades’ worth of U.S.-managed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is certain to impact both the negotiations themselves and perceptions of those negotiations, because there’s so many of them, and because their veracity remains in question, it’s probably best for the moment to hold off on grand pronouncements about What They Mean. But here are a few impressions.
First, the documents seriously challenge the theory that unquestioning U.S. support for Israel is necessary to give Israel the confidence to make concessions for peace. From what I’ve seen so far, mostly from the George W. Bush era, the documents show that unquestioning U.S. support for Israel mainly gave the Israelis the confidence to continue to expect and receive ever more concessions from the Palestinians, while absolving them of any real pressure to actually make a deal.
This transcript of a March 2008 meeting is a good case in point. The Palestinians would like a discussion of future borders to proceed from the 1967 borders, that is, the 1949 Armistice lines, an approach grounded in international law and successive United Nations resolutions. The Israelis, on the other hand, prefer to start from a discussion of “reality on the ground” — a reality which Israel is, of course, in the process of changing every day through settlement expansion and wall construction.
In any normal negotiation, one party demanding that those negotiations occur within a frame of reference that that party is constantly unilaterally changing in its own favor would probably be laughed out of the room. But here, by virtue both of being the occupying power, backed unquestioningly by the world’s dominant actor, Israeli negotiators are able to sit back and do just that, and their Palestinian opposites have little option other than to note objection, and agree to disagree for now, knowing that when they next return to the table, reality on the ground will have changed again.
That brings me to the second takeaway from these documents, which is how starkly they reveal the massive disparity in power between the two sides. In an ironic sense, it turns out that the right-wing canard about there being “no Palestinian partner for peace” is true — they’re more like supplicants for peace. When one reads the extent of what Palestinian negotiators have, at various times, offered the Israelis — such as Saeb Erekat’s alleged offer on Jerusalem — it’s almost a relief that the Israelis didn’t accept, as it’s hard to imagine any Palestinian leadership, certainly not one this weak, selling capitulations that extensive to their own people. This would be an issue of concern to any genuinely honest broker. It does not appear to have been for the U.S.
Which brings me to the final point, which is not directly addressed in these documents but hangs over almost every page, and that’s the weakness of the Palestinian leadership itself. At this point, how much do these negotiations really matter in the absence of genuine political legitimacy for those doing the negotiating? The release of these documents is a disaster for Mahmoud Abbas and the current P.A. leadership, and a bonanza for Hamas and other critics of the peace process, which is now revealed as little more than a surrender process. While that may be good in terms of an honest reckoning, it does little in the short term to actually make anyone’s life better, or bring us closer to a resolution of the conflict.