Much like the recent WikiLeaks cables, the “Palestine Papers” leaked to al-Jazeera provide a treasure trove of information for those interested in a play-by-play account of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in recent years. Nevertheless, to western eyes, these revelations should be far from earth-shattering. In fact, the documents release so far, along with the maps, look remarkably similar to the Clinton Parameters from 23 December 2000, and have long been on record.
In the wake of the failed July 2000 Camp David summit, US negotiators tried to offer bridging proposals in the twilight of Bill Clinton’s presidency. The final American push came with the release of the Clinton Parameters – an actual offer containing the contours of a final agreement. On territory, it called for a solution including between 94-96% of the West Bank (100% of Gaza), with a land swap between 1-3% that would account for 80% of the Israelis living in the West Bank. The Jerusalem formula followed the general principle that what was Arab in the city would be Palestinian, and what was Jewish would be Israeli, and would also apply to the Old City. The refugee formula called for massive international financial compensation and resettlement in the Palestinian state or in other countries. Israel accepted these ideas – and Arafat rejected them, in what Bill Clinton later called “an error of historic proportions” in his 2004 memoir, My Life.
The core of the conflict has always been about contrasting narratives, unbridgeable red lines and mythology. And Palestinian Authority leaders have not prepared their people for the compromises necessary to make peace. Instead, they promise 100% of the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, and an unrestricted return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel – some 4.5 million according to recent estimates. It is inconceivable that any democratically elected government of Israel would part with all of Jerusalem and sign a death warrant for the Jewish state by allowing the return of millions of Palestinian refugees.
This explains why the Israeli negotiating position remained remarkably unified in the “Palestine Papers”. Israeli leaders understand what the acceptable contours of a final status agreement will look like and it includes land swaps and probably a creative formula on Jerusalem.
What the “Palestine Papers” reveal is the disconnect between the positions publicly held by the Palestinian Authority and the expectations of ordinary Palestinians. But even this should not be such a surprise in a region where autocratic leaders have a habit of steering their population’s eyes elsewhere to account for domestic problems. And the Arab-Israeli conflict has, in that respect, long been the regional gift that keeps on giving.
The most telling aspect of the leaked papers is what it says about President Barack Obama’s approach to the peace process. If his preoccupation with gaining an Israeli settlement freeze appeared mystifying before, it seems positively foolish now. It was during Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel in March 2010 that the Jerusalem Municipality authorised 1,600 new housing tenders. This led the White House on the tactical diversion of demanding an Israeli settlement freeze. It turns out, however, that the area affected most by the announcement – Ramat Shlomo, in northern Jerusalem – was already discussed with Palestinian negotiators in 2008 as a town that would be annexed to Israel. This reaffirms that the notion that Israeli settlements are the greatest obstacle to peace is a mere canard.
No wonder, then, there has been less progress on the path to peace during Obama’s watch than at any time since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. Barack Obama has held a position that is more absolutist than the Palestinian Authority itself.
There can be little doubt that whoever leaked these documents to al-Jazeera did so to harm the Palestinian Authority. This will give Hamas the ability to continue to sell their “resistance” platform as the ultimate path to Palestinian statehood, that compromises are not necessary, that Jerusalem will be Palestinian, and that millions of refugees will return to Israel. One can only hope that the revelations contained in the “Palestine Papers” will spark a realistic debate within Palestinian society. After all, without a fundamental shift in Palestinian principles and red lines, a final peace agreement will remain out of reach, no matter how many direct negotiations are held.