26 January 2011
The secret documents, called the Palestine Papers, released by Al Jazeera and The Guardian reveal an even more depressing reality of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations than many of us would have expected.
As I will argue, the broad contours were already obvious, but in detail, one is hard pressed to have predicted quite the extent of Palestinian humiliation, as they grovelled before their American masters, and before intransigent Israeli negotiators. As Palestinians gave away everything, and made concession after concession, Israel would demand more, give nothing, and even renege on concessions it had claimed it had been willing to make in previous negotiations.
The interesting thing about what the Palestine Papers reveal is also in relation to public relations and private diplomacy. The standard theme of Israeli propaganda after negotiations collapsed after the 2000 Camp David negotiations was that Israel had offered the Palestinians everything, but the intransigent and ungrateful Palestinians had rejected it all, proving that the Israelis had no partner for peace. The Palestinian leadership never bothered with public relations, and it was largely left to academics and left wing Israeli negotiators to reveal that this story was far from the truth. For example, after the Camp David proposals, the two parties negotiated at Taba (negotiations ended unilaterally by Israel). Israel’s chief negotiator at Taba, Shlomo Ben Ami, said if he were a Palestinian he would have rejected the Camp David proposal. The Palestine Papers include maps of the Camp David proposal. They show clearly how Ariel and Maale Adumim are used to dissect the West Bank into three non-contiguous cantons, with settlements dotting the landscape, connected by roads, further dividing Palestinian towns and areas from each other. Perhaps this will finally put an end to the favourite Zionist myth of Israeli generosity, met by Palestinian intransigence and rejectionism.
This is only one part of a longer story that the Palestine Papers reveal. That is to say, there is a broader pattern of the Palestinians time after time giving Israel everything it asks for, whilst Israel pockets every concession, and then demands more.
The difference in public relations can at least in part be explained by the very different ways the two political groupings function. Israel elects leaders, who then pursue their electoral mandates by trying to justify themselves to their publics. The Palestinian negotiators, on the other hand, gain their positions of power by making themselves acceptable to the US and Israel, at which point they become moderates. Then Israel negotiates with them: at which point, they have to justify themselves before the Palestinian public. They do so by declaring their defiance of Israel, and how they will liberate Palestine. Regardless, their positions, and privilege, depend on continued Israeli and US largesse, which prevents them getting out of line. And so, in public, they declare to the Palestinians their unyielding defence of Palestinian rights. In private, they prostrate themselves before their masters, hoping that by serving them well, and through endless capitulations, eventually, they will rule over some semblance of a state which isn’t too humiliating to allow them some kind of simulated dignity. As it turns out, surrendering to Israel isn’t the path to freedom.
To properly appreciate the extent of Palestinian humiliation in negotiations with Israel, one needs to put it in proper context. Palestine’s demographic balance began to shift from being overwhelmingly Palestinian, to having a sizeable Jewish minority after World War II, because the Zionist movement had successfully gained the support of imperial Britain in facilitating Jewish immigration. Partition of Palestine, rather than democratic rule, was then imposed on Palestine, first by international recommendation in 1947, before being implemented by the Zionist army and terrorist militias, in collaboration with what became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which occupied the West Bank. At this point, Israel conquered 78 per cent of Palestine. Thirty years later, Israeli archives began to be opened, and Israeli historians confirmed that the Palestinians who did not flee were driven out of Palestine through a mixture of measures including Zionist terrorism, psychological warfare and outright expulsions. Those 700 000 refugees from the Nakbah now number, with their descendants, perhaps 5 million people.
Israel proceeded to conquer the remaining 22 per cent of historic Palestine in 1967. It quickly began the process of constructing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, seeking to gain Palestinian land, quietly evicting local Palestinian populations by making life more difficult, and gaining control over Palestinian water resources.
For decades after the Catastrophe, the war from 1947-9, Palestinian politics was dominated by leadership which claimed that it sought to liberate all of Palestine. In the 1960s, the PLO began calling for a secular Palestine: predictably, gaining no traction in Israel or the international community. However, in 1976, the international community reached what Noam Chomsky has been writing about since then as the international consensus: a two state solution. This was brought before the UN Security Council. The exception to the international consensus were the two rejectionist parties: Israel, and the US, which has consistently blocked a two-state solution in the Security Council. Since 1976 the PLO has more and more openly backed a two-state agreement, despite consistent rebuffs from Israel, which rejected the creation of a Palestinian state, and even negotiations with the PLO, declaring it would not negotiate with that terrorist organisation.
What began a process of change was the outbreak of the First Intifada. As Israel Shahak noted, before its outbreak, “Israel kept in the territories an average of 10,000-15,000 military occupiers. However, during the heyday of the intifada, in mid-1988, the number of troops was 180,000.” Furthermore, Israel’s extensive network of collaborators was effectively disrupted by the First Intifada, forcing Israel to impose its rule directly: a far more costly method.
A better way was found via the Oslo Peace Process, when Israel finally decided the PLO weren’t terrorists. Israel had previously only negotiated with Palestinians it considered moderate, and not affiliated with the PLO. In 1993, an exchange of letters between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat established that Israel would negotiate with the PLO. The PLO won this not by reciprocally agreeing to negotiate with Israel. Instead, it agreed, before negotiations began, to recognise Israel’s right to exist, to renounce all violence and “assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators”. The PLO also agreed to change its charter to be consistent with these promises.
Effectively, this meant ending the Intifada, promising to end resistance, and even to assume responsibility for enforcing Israel’s security, and agreeing on Israel’s right to 78 per cent of Palestine: all the PLO got in return was an agreement to negotiate over the rest. Edward Said was one of the early prophets of the impending disaster. He explained that “All secret deals between a very strong and a very weak partner necessarily involve concessions hidden in embarrassment by the latter… the deal before us smacks of the PLO leadership’s exhaustion and isolation, and of Israel’s shrewdness”. This was a “Palestinian Versailles.” Even Thomas Friedman agreed that Arafat had sent “a letter of surrender, a typewritten white flag”.
Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin explained that “I prefer that the Palestinians cope with the problem of enforcing order in the Gaza [Strip]. The Palestinians will be better at it than we were because they will allow no appeals to the Supreme Court and will prevent the [Israeli] Association for Civil Rights from criticizing the conditions there by denying it access to the area. They will rule there by their own methods, freeing – and this is most important – the Israeli army soldiers from having to do what they will do.” Similarly, Natan Sharansky explained that the “idea of Oslo” was “to find a strong dictator to… keep the Palestinians under control”.
And so, a Palestinian collaborating elite was installed, gaining its status and privilege by protecting Israelis (not Palestinians) and suppressing Palestinian resistance. However, ending Palestinian resistance effectively meant that Israel no longer had any reason to make concessions (which never came). For the Palestinians, the peace process delivered nothing. For Israel, as long as it declared it was conducting a peace process, it could benefit from the new Palestinian collaborators enforcing order in the occupied territories, whilst continuing to use force against Palestinians when desired, and colonising Palestinian land, now at a faster pace. Settlements in the West Bank roughly doubled from 1993-2000 – at the height of the so-called peace process. Similarly, as Dov Weisglass explained, the settlements were withdrawn from Gaza so that the remaining West Bank “settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns”. That is: to prevent any Israel concessions indefinitely. Meanwhile, settlements in the West Bank continue to expand.
Israeli rejectionism has long been this brazen, and past revelations have been no less colourful. Prime minister Netanyahu has bragged about how he previously “stopped the Oslo Accord”. The general idea was to give 2 per cent, to avoid a general withdrawal. Similarly, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir explained in 1992 that “I would have carried on autonomy talks for 10 years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria”. Basically, what Israel proceeded to do under succeeding Labor, Kadima and Likud governments.
Israel’s commitment to only negotiating with collaborationists was continued when Hamas won the 2006 elections. Israel immediately boycotted the elected government, and instead negotiated with an even more abject Fatah, now led by Mahmoud Abbas. The nature of their by now completely illegitimate pseudo-government, its harsh repression, and its complete subservience to the US and Israel, was already plain enough. It detained thousands of Palestinians, employed torture, and suppressed protests against Israel’s massive assault on Gaza from 2008-9.
Noam Chomsky described the PLO as “the most corrupt and incompetent Third World movement I’ve ever seen”. They “presented themselves all these years as, you know, revolutionaries waving around guns, Marx, etc. – but they’re basically conservative nationalists, and they always were conservative nationalists: the rest was all pretence… Their game was, ‘We’re going to make a deal with Kissinger or Nixon, or some rich guy in a back room, and then our problems will be over’”. This seems more or less accurate: Fatah appears to believe it can surrender its way to victory. If the peace process isn’t delivering anything to anyone outside the ranks of collaborators, so what? At least life is getting better for the people who matter.
This explains some of the despair and outrage in the Palestine Papers. For example, Saeb Erekat complained to the Americans that “Recently six presidential guards in civilian clothes on their way from Bethlehem to Ramallah were stopped by Israeli soldiers and stripped to humiliate them in front of their people.” Obviously, such treatment should not be given out to the collaborationist elite: only ordinary Palestinians in the occupied territories should be subject to these daily humiliations.
There is much in the detail of Palestine Papers that conforms to the general history. Saeb Erekat, for example, agreed that the “deal is there” on refugees: “1,000 refugees annually for the next 10 years”. This was well known to anyone interested. Sari Nusseibeh wrote in his memoirs that “It was an open secret to our Israeli interlocutors that we weren’t going to insist on the wholesale return of refugees. The only people who weren’t privy to this secret were our refugees and the Israeli people. The people in the camps, I continued, had a right to know what our position was, and that our national interest required that they accept less than full historical justice.” Nusseibeh argued that this be publicly acknowledged: Mahmoud Abbas disagreed. Presumably, he thought this would further tarnish his credentials as someone struggling for Palestinian rights.
The actual negotiations themselves are awful to read. Israeli arrogance is overwhelming. Israel refuses to negotiate with 1967 as a “baseline”. Instead, they demand talks they be based on current realities on the ground. This is a euphemism for settlements: that is, Palestinians are to negotiate over the West Bank, whilst it is being stolen from the Palestinians, for the express purpose of preventing those parts of the West Bank becoming part of a future Palestinian state. It is as though one were to divide a pizza among two men, whilst the stronger man claimed a right to 8 of 10 slices, and then negotiated over the remaining two whilst eating them.
When not surrendering to the Israelis, the Palestinian negotiating team would plead with the Americans to help. The US described a settlement freeze as “beyond reach”. This is true in a technical sense: the Obama administration refused to exert any pressure on Israel beyond empty rhetoric, whilst giving Israel billions of dollars in aid. Erekat pleaded with the US: we’ve offered Israel the “biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state… What more can I give?”
As Tariq Ali noted, they surrendered everything “except their own salaries”. However, there may be some good to come out of this yet. Firstly, people in the West may finally overcome years of dominant Israeli government propaganda about how all the Palestinians are rejectionists who want to drive Israelis into the sea, whilst Israel keeps making generous offers that get rejected for no apparent reason. Secondly, these may help make plain that the US is an active agent in Israeli rejectionism. It gives billions of dollars to Israel in aid, then in negotiations acts as though settlements were simply another issue to be negotiated: not as though all settlements were immoral and never should have been built in the first place. Meanwhile, it props up Fatah, even to the extent of refusing to let Abu Mazen resign.
Does this mean, as some have said that the two-state solution is dead? No, because Israel and the US have been blocking it since 1976. Nothing has changed, except that the leaks should change people’s perceptions of how peace may be achieved. Instead of placing all of the demands on the allegedly intransigent Palestinians, these leaks should help people understand that a solution to the conflict will depend on pressuring Israel to end the occupation and to stop stealing Palestinian land. Perhaps this can even end Australian complicity in the occupation.