Will 'The Palestine Papers' Kill the Peace Process?

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FADI AROURI / AFP / Getty Images

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority

An unspoken truth held to be self-evident by many in the Middle East is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is dead. If so, the trove of more than 1,600 secret Palestinian documents whose release by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news organization and Britain's Guardian newspaper began on Sunday could be its postmortem. The documents, allegedly leaked from within the Palestinian negotiating infrastructure and not part of the WikiLeaks Cablegate dump, detail an increasingly desperate yet futile effort by Palestinian negotiators to tempt Israel into a deal by conceding more and more ground, while pleading in vain with U.S. officials for help. And in the longer term, they could even prove politically fatal to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeeb Erekat and his boss, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Erekat on Sunday dismissed the documents as "a bunch of lies," but al-Jazeera and the Guardian insist their veracity was carefully established from multiple sources within the Palestinian bureaucracy. More are to be rolled out in the coming days.

The Palestinian leadership, already politically enfeebled by years of fruitless negotiation while Israel expanded its grip on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, will be vulnerable to the documents' purported revelations on a number of issues:

• The extent to which they were willing to accept Israel's annexation of territories settled illegally — according the U.N. and the Palestinians themselves — since their occupation in 1967.

• Their efforts to accommodate Israel over the question of Jerusalem's holy sites, the dispute over which sank the Camp David talks in 2000.

• Their willingness to cede the rights of Palestinian refugees who lost homes in Israel in 1948. (There's nothing new about Palestinian leaders being willing to fudge the refugee issue in deference to Israel's insistence on maintaining a Jewish majority, but none have been willing to tell the hundreds of thousands of refugees still living in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank that they won't be returning to what is now Israel.)

• The depths of security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel — including the suggestion that the Authority was informed ahead of Israel's intention to attack Gaza in the winter of 2008-09, through which it remained largely silent, only retrospectively joining condemnation of Operation Cast Lead.

• The documents also paint an unedifying picture of Abbas and Erekat suffering systematic humiliation in a negotiating process they insist represents the Palestinians' only hope for progress — and of the Israelis being unimpressed no matter how willing the Palestinian negotiators are to concede rights they enjoy under international law.

Abbas and Erekat, of course, are operating within the limits of a process in which the Palestinians have no leverage, peace being something of a misnomer since Abbas and Erekat are not at war with Israel. In fact, they have nothing to offer that Israel's leaders believe they currently need; the status quo is acceptable to the Israeli side. So, Abbas advocates could argue that the concessions he's alleged to have offered may be the only realistic way to achieve a deal given the absence of any U.S. willingness to press Israel. But it's precisely that sense of the slim offerings available at the negotiating table that has prompted even many leaders in Abbas' own Fatah movement to urge him to break with the U.S.-led process and adopt strategies to pressure Israel.

The furor over the documents will, of course, reinforce the claim by more hawkish Israelis that no matter how accommodating Abbas is willing to be, he lacks the political authority to sell his own people the deal he's offering Israel. Some may also argue that the disclosures show that Abbas' insistence on a settlement freeze as a precondition to resuming talks was a red herring, tossed out by a leadership willing to concede Israel's rights to those settlements but not to face the moment of truth with their own people on the terms of a peace agreement. Israeli doves will counter, however, that the documents undercut the mantra that "there is no Palestinian partner" for peace and raise questions about the Israeli leadership's willingness to compromise.

The major impact of the "Palestine Papers," however, will be on the administration of President Abbas. It's not really a democratic administration, of course. The last Palestinian legislative elections were held in 2006 and were won by Hamas; Israel then simply detained enough Hamas legislators to prevent the legislature from seating a quorum, and Abbas has been governing by decree ever since (even though his own term of office expired in January 2009). Nor does the Abbas administration demonstrate much tolerance for dissent — last week, it even banned Palestinian demonstrations in support of the Tunisian uprising that forced the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

Abbas' team had been moving haltingly in the direction of adopting more pressure tactics, such as pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning all Israeli settlements outside the 1967 borders as illegal, and expressing support for grass-roots protest action against the expansion of Israeli settlements in places like the West Bank village of Bilin and the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. But documents that allegedly show just how willing the Palestinian Authority leadership has been to agree to Israel annexing those same settlements weaken the credibility of its effort to raise international pressure, while one of the documents includes a proposal to allow Israel to annex Sheikh Jarrah in exchange for land elsewhere. Such a proposal, needless to say, would be widely greeted by Palestinians as a betrayal.

The problem facing Abbas and Erekat as they try to discredit the documents being rolled out in the coming week is that the peace process in which they have invested all their political capital is itself so palpably moribund as to corrode their credibility. Indeed, the Palestine Papers may well have made the position of Abbas politically untenable. Not only do they militate against him seeking a democratic mandate for another term of office; the fallout they may generate could underscore the unlikelihood of any Palestinian leader being able to accept the terms Israel is currently willing to offer for a two-state deal. The possibility that a two-state solution can be agreed to by the parties themselves has just become a little more remote. And that leaves the matter of ending the occupation and realizing Palestinian rights back in the lap of the international community.