The Palestine Papers: deal breaker or deal maker?

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. Continue reading

At last – coherent international policy on Israeli settlements?

The Obama administration’s Middle East policy is under construction. Despite Obama’s new tone, it is still too early to see specific policy changes on most of key regional issues.

The one exception to this has been US policy on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Here, in contrast to their predecessors, the Obama team have taken a firm line against any settlement expansion including “natural growth.” This has created a rift between the US and Israeli governments, which Israeli PM Netanyahu and his allies are finding hard to handle domestically. The US is nonetheless sticking to its line. Hillary Clinton has been clear not only in demanding a freeze, but also in stating that “any informal and oral agreements” between the Bush administration and Israel on settlements “did not become part of the official position of the United States government.”

The new US insistence on a total settlement freeze brings the US into line with longstanding EU and UN positions, so for the first time in years we are seeing solid, unified international policy this issue. In June, the Quartet urged Israel “to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth; to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001; and to refrain from provocative actions in East Jerusalem, including home demolition and evictions.” The European line on settlements is also being put forward in strong terms by the Swedish Presidency. Earlier this week, a senior Swedish foreign ministry official said that it was “inconceivable” for the international community to legitimize natural growth of the settler population.

So far so good: coherent international policy on an issue that constitutes a serious block to good faith negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and creates facts on the ground that inevitably influence final status discussions.

Then the European Commission steps in. Continue reading