Elliott Abrams

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The Palestine Papers–First Look

by Elliott Abrams
January 24, 2011

Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert arrive at the Elysee Palace in Paris to meet with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on July 13, 2008 (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters)

Al Jazeera and The Guardian newspaper are publishing what they claim are hundreds of previously secret Palestinian documents about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in the latter Bush and Olmert years, especially 2007-2008. My first look at these documents, which cover a period when I was much involved in those negotiations, leads to three preliminary conclusions.

First, some of the papers seem inaccurate to me, going solely by memory. They put into people’s mouths words I do not recall them saying in meetings I attended. This is not shocking: written records of meetings can be inaccurate even when there’s a serious effort at accuracy. Moreover, Palestinian officials reviewing the documents after the meetings may have “improved” them, putting words in their own mouths (rather in the way our own members of Congress can “revise and extend” their remarks to improve them) or with less friendly objectives putting words in the mouths of others. Or, I may have missed parts of meetings or simply not be recalling accurately. But I would not take every one of these documents as necessarily 100 percent accurate.

Second, these negotiations over possible compromises will surprise no American and no Israeli. In the United States and in Israel there have been twenty years of discussions of the compromises needed for a final status agreement. This has not been the case among Palestinians, where the debate has been far less free. There are still constant calls among Palestinians and in Arab capitals for a complete return to the 1967 “borders,” which are in fact the 1949 armistice lines and to which there will never be a return. Palestinians may be surprised to learn that their negotiators understood this quite well and that the negotiations were actually about how far from the 1949 lines a final deal might go.

Third, what some newspapers are calling “offers” or “agreements” made in the 2007-2008 negotiations are far less than that–are in fact most often preliminary probes or efforts to smoke out the other side. The Israelis and Palestinians never reached an agreement and in many areas, as the papers so far published show, were very far apart. It is often said that “everyone knows what a final status agreement will look like” but these documents powerfully undermine that conclusion; a good example here is the Palestinian refusal to accept that Maale Adumim, a “settlement” with a population just short of forty thousand that is actually a suburb of Jerusalem, will remain part of Israel. It may be true that the range of options is limited, but the negotiators never concluded on agreement and the proposal made by then-Prime Minister Olmert in 2008 was not accepted.

The release of these “Palestine Papers” may be healthy. Anything that helps Palestinian public opinion move toward greater realism about the compromises needed for peace is useful. The impact on specific individuals is a different matter, one to be played out in the coming days.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by Elizabeth

    I agree that these papers might be beneficial because they can make Palestinians more realistic about what they’ll eventually get out the negotiations.

    What I hope you can address in future posts is how Israel comes across in these papers and the influence of these papers on world opinion of Israel. I think the myth that there’s “no partner” on the Palestinian side is dead, but this is still something that Bibi’s government keeps claiming, making us (Israel) look like liars.

  • Posted by Nikos Retsos

    Elliot: I know you have had a long diplomatic career, and I respect your opinion. But your presentation here is more dialectical than realistic, and peace in Middle East needs a reality check. And your statement in the last paragraph: “Anything that helps Palestinian public opinion move toward greater realism about the compromises needed for peace is useful,” seems to find the Palestinians at fault! But the explosion of a global outrage against Israel after its attack on the Food for Gaza Flotilla left no doubt what the international public opinion see in Middle East had placed the blame squarely on Israel.

    There is in the Wikileaks this Saeeb Erekat’s-of the Palestinian Authority (PA)-offer to Israel, on quote: “The biggest Yerushalayim [Jerusalem in Yiddish] in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state… what more can I give?” That would certainly cause Yaser Arafat to turn over in his grave. That offer to Israel is certainly a “high treason” [in my opinion] for Palestinians. And that is why the PA is up in arms. They are afraid that the Palestinian public will see them as traitors!

    The idea of a Palestinian state that will be “Demilitarized; its borders will be controlled by Israel; its air space controlled by Israel; access to the sea and ports controlled by Israel; what it can import will be controlled by Israel-like they are in Gaza now; a symbolic number of refugees will be allowed to return only?; radio and TV stations air licenses would probably be controlled by Israel, and probably not renewed if they criticize it; the Palestinian Authority would be forced to arrest and turn over to Israel any politician or Palestinian as demanded by Israel, or Israel would send in its forces to make arrests-like it does now. A Palestinian state as offered by Erekak, therefore, would not be anything more than a Palestinian Reservation-akin to the American Indian Reservations here. Worse yet, The U.S. provides funding to the Indian Reservations; Israel will not. And if Iran wanted to help such a cosmetic Palestinian state, for example, Israel won’t allow any such aid deeming it a threat to its national security! Such a state would be nothing more than what Gaza is now. The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Edorgan has described the Gaza strip as “an open air Israeli prison!” And if Israel refused to accept Erekat’s offer, which is one step less than a complete surrender, what is “the move towards greater realism that the Palestinians need to do [your words]” for a peace deal? I believe that the PA has offered much more to Israel that it should have, as I believe that it has discredited itself as a Palestinian negotiator with Israel. And that will make any peace in Middle East more difficult now because any renewed talks between Israel and the PA will be under a cloud of suspicion.

    About 12 years ago, CBS “60 Minutes” sent Bob Simon to the West Bank to investigate corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA). He found that hundreds of millions of dollars by the U.S. and the European Union aid to the PA had been used by PA officials to built villas for themselves, buy BMW, Mercedes, and luxury SUVs, while the rest of the Palestinians lived in filthy tents and dilapidated neighborhoods without running water, electricity, or any social services-like those provided by Hamas in Gaza. And standing in a street where sewer was running in the middle, and Palestinian children playing around sewer pools, Simon closed his report with this comment: “The U.S. and the European Union (EU) thought that by giving the aid to the PA, some of it will somehow trickle down to the poor Palestinian families. But so far, the only thing that has trickled down is this: Sewer, in the middle of the street.” No wonder, then, why Hamas trashed the PA in all Palestinian elections-even though the U.S. and the EU have declared Hamas “a terrorist organization.” The reason: Hamas will not accept “an open air prison”-like Gaza-as an offer to settle the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

    But, fortunately, the Wikileaks exposure of the PA’s willingness to give it all to Israel verifies these long held suspicions: That the PA officials have always been ready to accept anything that would have allowed them to live in luxury themselves-in a cosmetic-only Palestinian state, with little or nothing for the rest of the Palestinians. And the U.S.-and the EU under U.S. pressure, would have probably accepted it, and called it ” a historic moment for Middle East peace”-just to get the Palestinian question off their back. But the PA is now exposed, and the creation of another “open air prison” for Palestinians in the West Bank called “Palestine” is unlikely to happen. Thank you, Wikileaks. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

  • Posted by Noah

    @Nikos: If Abbas were to ever agree to anything short of the end of armed resistance and a PA state from the Jordan to the Med, he would be deemed a traitor and that is what has Abbas upset.

    The U.S. or Israel are not going to make policy decisions based on what PM Edorgan statements or whatever the current Propaganda coming from leftist, Islamic movements claims about the conditions in the Gaza strip or the impacts of having a demilitrized PA state; given the type of vile hate propaganda against Israel and Jews that is pump into the PA populace which is, again, the reason the PA admin is upset about these leaks and being viewed as traitors.

  • Posted by Bashir Anastas

    This is a candid commentary that lends credence to the assertion that “there is no daylight between the US and Israel.” I only wish the writer had elaborated on what he means by “realism” on the part of the Palestinians about the compromises needed for peace.

    Seeing that the reaction to the release of the papers on the West Bank is more tepid than the reaction to the handling of the Goldstone Report issue, I can’t help but think that most Palestinians already know that this is taking place. They know that Israel calls the shots and that the so called peace process is nothing but a charade. (According to the papers, Livni admitted as much)

    The real question now is whether given the general atmosphere of restlessness that pervades the neighborhood, the Palestinians will turn on the PA. I can see someone in the style of Mustafa Barghouti argue for dismantling the PA and turning the conflict into a civil rights struggle.

    Dissolving the PA may be difficult and may cause a humanitarian crisis on the West Bank. But then again, Palestinians on the West Bank were increasingly better off the farther back one goes in the pre-PA years.

    Given the power differential/asymmetry between the two sides, the best strategy for the PA might be for its executives to reside in Jordan or elsewhere and keep the administrators in charge, and then negotiate from the position that to the extent that Israel is unwilling to accede to a viable and “sovereign” (demilitarized) state, negotiations to create a state are to be abandoned and demands for individual property rights, reparations, and civil rights be put on the table.

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