The “Palestine Papers” Shock the Region

1,600 leaked diplomatic files show a Palestinian Authority willing to do just about anything for a state of their own.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, June 14, 2010
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Paris, France, June 14, 2010 (Olivier Pacteau)

It isn’t everyday when secret government files make their way into the press, unless of course Julian Assange and his cohorts at WikiLeaks have the information. Yet this is exactly what occurred today and the repercussions of these leaks could be far more profound than the 250,000 documents that WikiLeaks released last year.

Initially reported by Al Jazeera Television in Qatar, and corroborated by Britain’s The Guardian, thousands of pages of authentic files from the Palestinian delegation have been made available to the public.

In stark contrast to other diplomatic leaks that have been inconsequential, if not downright silly, the “Palestine Papers” actually provide valuable insight into an issue that remains on the global boilerplate: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Collectively, the 1,600 leaked documents provide a rare, if not unprecedented, first person look into the trials and tribulations of the peace process, which has produced more process than peace. Or, to dramatize it further, a process that has been held hostage by the stubbornness of national pride for over two decades.

You can read the original story at The Guardian, which offers a concise summary of what is actually in the documents. There have also been responses from a variety of quarters, including Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elliot Abrams and the always intellectual Stephen Walt.

From reading all of these accounts, four quick observations are appropriate:

  • There is an extreme disconnect between what the Palestinian Authority is willing to do behind closed doors and what it is willing to say publicly. The documents show a desperate Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas doing anything they can to acquire a final status peace deal with the Israelis.

    Some of the concessions that Abbas was willing to make are remarkable: a continued Israeli security presence in the West Bank, an Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem settlements, conceding sovereignty over holy sites, etc.  The Palestinians gave the Israelis everything that they could in order to arrive at an agreement. This stance comes in direct opposition to the stern language that Abbas and his team use in front of the cameras. All of this points to two scenarios: the Palestinian leadership either recognize that they need to be flexible in order to arrive at a state of their own or they are increasingly detached from what the Palestinian people want.

  • The Israelis have been stubborn, for reasons that don’t make much sense. Despite the generous position laid out by the Palestinians, the Israeli government continues to reject the proposals out of hand. Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it best: “We do not like this suggestion because it does not meet our demands.” But it’s hard to believe what else the Israelis would want. The Palestinians were prepared to cease majority control in East Jerusalem, which the Israelis have always wanted. Yet when the offer is there, the Israeli delegation chooses to refuse it.
  • The leaks hurt all parties involved in peace negotiations, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But the United States come across in the worst light. The papers show a American power unwilling to gravitate from the Israeli position, for one reason or another. The Palestinians on the other side of the table are left basking in the wind by themselves, while Israel has the backing of a superpower. Granted, most of this occurred during the Bush Administration, so blaming Barack Obama for what happened during the 2007-08 talks is not fair. The president has tried to push the United States closer as an intermediary rather than a player, regardless of domestic pressure. But the “Palestine Papers” may undo some of Obama’s progress. When the Arab world reads the latest headlines, it will only reinforce the traditional Palestinian perception that America is not an impartial peace broker.
  • Hamas is the only winner in the papers, not because of their popular support, but because their rivals in the Palestinian Authority are depicted as Israeli stooges and pushovers.

In short, work just got a lot more difficult for Obama’s Middle East peace agenda. With diplomacy consistently failing, the Palestinians have all the more reason to take unilateral actions at the United Nations Security Council.