The Palestine Papers: deal breaker or deal maker?

by | Jan 25, 2011

It’s over.  The peace process that never really was a true effort to find peace has now been exposed to have died a slow death. The two-state solution has been dealt a final blow and is, as John Cleese would say, an ex-solution.

This is the main, somewhat knee-jerk, thrust of reactions in the Middle East to the publication of the so-called Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera and the Guardian.  Most Israeli and Palestinian commentators seem to agree:  Israel never really wanted a deal (or was politically capable of it); the Americans sided with Israel, the status quo continuing to be its preferred political option; and the Palestinian leadership grew so frustrated and disinterested that they proved willing to betray the trust of the people they were supposed to represent.

As we move further away from Jerusalem though, reactions appear to be more upbeat.  The cynical views is that ‘these Palestine Papers reveal nothing that we didn’t already know’, while the optimists cheer that now that the truth is out, real action must follow.  Typically, the US State department spokesman dismissed the leaked documents as “not conducive to bringing the parties back to the  negotiating table”. William Hague, meanwhile, apparently missed the leaks altogether as he met with his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman and noted that settlement building is illegal (an argument that, given Lieberman’s political views, is probably about as futile as telling a pyromaniac that fire is bad while giving him a box of matches).

The Guardian’s editors seem to have difficulty making up their minds.  Yesterday, they appeared apologetic – suggesting that it would require Panglossian optimism to believe that the negotiations could one day be resurrected. Today, they are patting themselves on the back, claiming that by exposing “how and where this deal fell short, is not to undermine the goal. It is the only way left of rescuing it.

Having worked for eight years as a small cog in the vast diplomatic machine that is the Middle East peace  process, I cannot help but smile at the hoopla that these leaks have caused. But in my heart of hearts, I’d have to agree with the cynics.  The Palestine Papers may provide great detail and indeed shock even some of those closely involved in the process as to the extent of the concessions Palestinian negotiators were willing to make, but in essence they don’t really tell us anything new.  There may, at some stages, have been a genuine desire for peace on all sides but it should be clear to most of us now that there has never been the political need.

One year ago now, Henry Siegman, Director of the US/Middle East project, laid out why the peace process has failed so far, and what needs to change to give a chance of success:

The reason previous peace initiatives have failed is not all that difficult to divine. In a standoff between two vastly uneven adversaries – one an established state possessing one of the world’s most powerful military forces, the patronage of the world’s greatest superpow­er, and a thriving economy; the other a stateless, power­less, occupied, and impoverished people – it should be no mystery which of the two will prevail. Given that imbalance, the possibility of a fair agreement between the mismatched adversaries is difficult to imagine without the intervention of a third party that restores a measure of balance between the two. It is a role the international community has always expected the US to assume, but one it has so far avoided.

In the absence of that necessary balance, dialogue be­tween Israelis and Palestinians about their respective founding narratives is hardly likely to bring about a political agreement. Nor, for that matter, will resumed talks between Netanyahu and Abbas on the so-called “‘67-issues.” A political agreement will become possi­ble only when the cost-benefit calculations of maintain­ing the occupation and denying Palestinians a viable state are changed decisively.

The Palestine Papers, despite today’s boasts from the Guardian, are unlikely to provide this change.  US foreign policy was unfazed by a quarter of a million leaked documents on Wikileaks, and it will more than likely survive a further sixteen hundred on Al Jazeera (some US diplomats may even applaud Secretary Rice’s ingenuity for suggesting that the Palestinian refugee issue could be resolved by transferring them to Chile and Argentina). The volume of Saeb Erakat’s denials would suggest that some change may be afoot in the upper echelons of the Palestinian side, but even a reshuffle of the Fatah leadership will not be the key to Middle East peace.

If anything, what the leaked documents have shown is that the three parties involved need the process more than its intended outcome and, like Michael Palin, will glue the process back on its perch and claim it was only pining for the fjords of Oslo.

The optimist in me though is watching the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Beirut today – because the decisive change that may force a strategic reorientation of Middle East policy may start right there.


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    Arjan van Houwelingen is a policy consultant and occasional researcher and writer, focusing on issues related to peace, politics and development. In the 90s he spend most of his time in Central and Eastern Europe researching aid effectiveness for organisations such as the EU, OECD, World Bank and USAID. Subsequently, he joined the UN where he worked on UN reform and the Middle East peace process. Currently, Arjan is based in the UK and, from time-to-time, the Netherlands.

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