Leaked Papers Show Israel Refusing Peace

ED. NOTE: When it comes to assigning blame for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Americans tend to blame the Palestinian side.

However, recent leaks of highly secret offers made to Israel by Palestinian negotiators provide strong evidence that it has been the Israeli side that refuses to accept peace and is not negotiating in good faith.

Could it be that it is the Israelis who”never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to make peace? And are Americans ready to reconsider their views of the 44-year old conflict in light of new facts?

The Rest of the Story by James Traub

At a meeting between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators on June 21, 2008, Ahmed Qurei, a former Palestinian prime minister, raised a familiar concern: “When will you freeze settlement activity? This will kill us.” Israel’s continuing refusal to stop settlement construction was making the Palestinian Authority look fatally weak in the eyes of Palestinian and Arab public opinion and thus empowering the radicals of Hamas. “You want to help Hamas on our account?” he asked.

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, noted that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, would soon be speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “You can raise it,” she said.

“They will freeze it?”

“No, but you can raise it.”

I mined this exchange from the so-called “Palestine Papers,” a trove of 1,600 documents — a kind of Arabic WikiLeaks — given to Al Jazeera and published earlier this month. The documents have been used to discredit Palestinian negotiators, whom Al Jazeera has described in blazing headlines as lackeys begging for scraps from the imperious Israelis. Some on the left in the United States have made the same point.

I don’t read the leaks that way. To me, Qurei and his colleagues come across as thoroughly rational, if world-weary, negotiators playing a weak hand as well as they can. I can see why frustrated Arabs, fed for years on triumphal delusions, might not see it that way; but if the American people read these documents they might finally be cured of their single-minded support for the official Israeli narrative and their hostility to Palestinian aspirations.

The exchange over the settlements was especially telling. U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Israel harder than any of his predecessors to freeze settlement construction as an indispensable good-faith gesture to the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed only to a temporary and partial freeze, and peace talks collapsed last year when Israel refused to extend the halt. Post-facto conventional wisdom holds that the White House should never have made the freeze a precondition, because the Palestinians themselves did not view it as a sine qua non. And yet, in the Palestine Papers, Qurei and his colleagues constantly harp on the public-relations catastrophe they will suffer should settlement construction continue. Livni, who seems to understand their situation perfectly well, never disagrees.

The 2008 talks were held in the wake of the Annapolis conference of late 2007, at which Olmert and Abbas had accepted a two-state solution. From the evidence of the Palestine Papers, the talks were conducted in a professional manner, with only the occasional temper tantrum or ideological diatribe. The Palestinians made painful concessions, first insisting that Israel could not annex any of the large settlement blocs in and around Jerusalem, and then conceding on several of them (thus today’s charges of betrayal). In extensive one-on-one meetings in mid-2008 — of which the papers released so far provide no hint — diplomats produced a document stipulating areas of agreement and leaving a great many brackets for the unresolved issues. In his new memoir and in a recent interview, Olmert has said that he and Abbas had reached agreement on virtually all major subjects and came agonizingly close to signing a deal in September 2008. Whether or not that’s so, it’s plain that both sides were trying very hard to bridge the gaps between them.

But it’s all a might-have-been. Olmert’s government fell, Israel invaded Gaza, and in early 2009 a much more conservative coalition under Netanyahu took power in Israel. Netanyahu only grudgingly — if at all — accepts the need for a Palestinian state and has shown no willingness to make the painful concessions necessary to bring it into being. The peace process is now dead in all but name: Obama even managed to mention El Salvador in his State of the Union address, but not Israel or Palestine. Indeed, nowhere else across the spectrum of major foreign-policy issues — not Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or China — has the Obama administration invested so much effort for so little. What killed the process was not a change in the Palestinian position, but in the Israeli one. It’s simply impossible to imagine the talks of 2008, with all their limitations, taking place today.

The Obama administration could just wash its hands of the whole mess, save for the fact that Israeli intransigence has become a problem for the United States — as well as for the Palestinians. Obama himself has acknowledged the obvious fact that anger in the Islamic world over the plight of the Palestinians hurts the image and endangers the national security of the United States, rightly seen as Israel’s great defender. That, in fact, is one of the main reasons that a group of senior diplomats and scholars recently called on Obama to vote in favor of a resolution which is to be submitted to the U.N. Security Council condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. (Another reason is that the resolution is consistent with long-standing U.S. policy.)

A yes vote would hardly restart the peace process. But it might shock some Israelis out of their complacent assumption that Washington can be counted on to automatically take their side no matter the merits of the case. What’s more, it would demonstrate to Arab publics that the U.S. talk about human rights and international law applies to its closest allies as well as to rogue states. At a time when those publics are finally, and dramatically, standing up for themselves and defying autocrats who are in most cases long-standing American allies, it behooves the United States to send such an unambiguous signal of commitment to its own principles.

But it won’t happen. An administration official confirms that it’s “extremely unlikely” that the United States would even abstain, much less affirm the resolution. Why? Because Israel would view it as a provocation. That’s certainly true — but what harm can a provocation do to a moribund peace process? The administration insists that in fact the process is still alive and that officials are thinking about issuing “terms of reference” for new negotiations. Well, hope springs eternal. But another reason the Obama administration is prepared to cast a U.N. Security Council veto that will provoke international outrage is that taking on Israel, like taking on the gun lobby, is a form of domestic political suicide — especially now, with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives which fiercely defends the Netanyahu government. No president wants to cast a “pro-Palestinian” vote; and this president, in particular, does not indulge in the doomed gesture.

Which brings me back to the Palestine Papers. One recent survey found that Americans view the Palestinian Authority as negatively as they do North Korea and Iran. Maybe that’s because they’ve all swallowed the “Israel lobby’s” propaganda. But I think it has more to do with a deep identification with Israel — among Christians every bit as much as among Jews — and the long years of Palestinian “violent resistance.” But these documents, compiled as informal transcripts, show the absurdity of that view.

The Palestine Papers leave you with a deep sense of pathos. The men sitting in those conference rooms in Jerusalem and Washington and Berlin are canny, patient, sometimes droll figures — politicians, to be sure, and yes, some of them former guerrillas — trying somehow to cajole or wheedle their way to a state of their own. Having recognized the futility of violence, they’ve given up the only instrument they had to compel, rather than convince, the other side. They must depend on something in which they have little faith: the good will of the other side.

“Let me ask first,” Qurei says at another point to Livni. “Do you want an agreement? Is it an Israeli priority?”

“By definition an agreement is an Israeli priority.” Whether or not that was true then, it scarcely feels true today.

Complete article via Foreign Policy


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