Beneath the Surface: What the Palestine Papers Really Reveal

Israel has come under fire and Palestinians have taken to the streets against the Palestinian Authority (PA) over Al Jazeera’s release of the Palestine Papers – a set of leaked insider documents from the PA’s Negotiation Support Unit on the Middle East peace process. The leaks cover negotiations since 1999, but most attention has been paid to talks between the PA and Israel’s Olmert government in 2008. The picture Al Jazeera wants to paint is clear: Israelis are stubborn, maximalist, and unrelenting in what they ask for, while Palestinians are too willing, too generous, and too yielding in their concessions.

Al Jazeera’s spin and headlines may appear convincing on the surface, but they do not hold up to the contextual scrutiny of accounts outside the leaks where it is well known that over-arching concessions were put forward by both sides. While the content of the leaks may cast doubt over Israel’s leadership, wide spread Palestinian repudiation of their moderate leaders for conceding ground on sensitive issues such as Jerusalem and refugees raises an equally pressing question: Is the Palestinian electorate ready to accept the necessary concessions to make peace – even if their leaders are?  

Firstly, the Palestine Papers do not tell the whole story of the peace process. They could be agenda driven and selectively edited by the original source, and do not provide the context of American or Israeli accounts. It is already well known that in 2008 major concessions were not a one way street – Israel’s Olmert government put an offer on the table that entailed dividing Jerusalem, withdrawing from nearly 100% of the disputed territory, providing territorial swaps for Palestinian contiguity, and granting the elusive right of return to a handful of Palestinian refugees. This is precisely why when negotiations restarted this past September, the PA moved to begin talks where they had left off in 2008 – claiming that they wanted to see the “Olmert concessions” honored.

Ultimately, the negotiations in 2008 failed not because of Palestinian or Israeli intransigence, but because neither party had the political capital to deliver an agreement to their people. The Olmert government had been probed for corruption charges, had mishandled an ill-fought war that compromised the notion of Israel’s military superiority against Hezbollah, and had an abysmal 3% domestic approval rating. Similarly, the PA was still reeling from Fatah’s electoral defeat in Gaza to Hamas, had failed at both nation-building and providing social welfare to Palestinian citizens, and had only tenuous control over a portion of the Palestinian territory and people as it continued to battle Hamas for political and security leverage. Simply put, the atmosphere was not ripe for an agreement – and both parties knew it in the end.  

Rather, what the Palestine Papers do reveal is that there is an enormous gap between how far the PA is willing to go and what the Palestinian electorate is willing to accept to make peace. Rather than being lauded for their efforts and praised for constructively and pragmatically engaging their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian negotiators named in the leaks such as Saeb Erakat, Ahmed Qurei, and Mahmoud Abbas have been fiercely pilloried in the Palestinian press as traitors and puppets of the Israeli government. PA officials have been on the defensive since the story broke and have gone as far as to accuse Al Jazeera of fomenting an Arab plot against them, while Hamas radicals have continued to gain traction by urging Palestinians across the territories to rebel in masses. These reactions send an unambiguous message to pragmatic Palestinian leaders: Palestinian society will punish those who make serious efforts for peace, not reward them.

There is no question that the revelations of the Palestine Papers cast doubt over the Israeli government’s mantra that it does not have a partner in peace, even if they represent an incomplete account of the negotiations. However, any talks that occur behind closed doors are rendered irrelevant as long as the Palestinian electorate does not accept that – just like Israel – it will have to make difficult and over-arching concessions on Jerusalem and refugees to reach a two-state consensus. As long as an atmosphere exists where radicals are lionized and moderates are vilified there will be no popular support to empower pragmatic Palestinian leaders who can actually deliver an agreement – no matter how generous their supposed concessions may be.

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