Sunday 30 January 2011

Analysing the "Palestine Papers" Leaks

The leak last week of confidential information regarding negotiations between representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the past decade has come as something of a surprise. The surprise is not in the fact that information has been leaked. We have already become accustomed to the publication of confidential government and diplomatic information, thanks to the recent revelations by Wikileaks. The surprise factor on this occasion surrounds the party responsible for the "Palileaks". Many have been surprised by the reaction in the Arab world, and by the Palestinians in particular, to the details published.

The so-called "Palestine Papers" have been made public by Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera (AJ). It is not immediately obvious what interest AJ would have to publish this information. I can only speculate as to what I think may have driven AJ to take this step. It is a news station that has succeeded in joining the ranks of the most recognised 24-hour news stations around the world over the past few years, along with the likes of BBC, Sky, Fox and CNN. With the increased attention of international news-watchers to events taking place in the Arab world and the Middle East, and particularly how they affect events in western countries, AJ has brought an angle that many other of the international news stations have been unable to cover. It is recognised as an Arab news station, with access to Arab news and news-makers that other stations do not have. AJ has, however, been very careful not to become the protector of Arab points of view. In this sense, the station has had no problem in "betraying" the Arab world if the news item demands this. Those Arabs who thought that AJ would be some sort of propaganda tool to promote the views of the Arab world will be gravely disappointed by the news station that AJ has become. It appears as if it is more important for AJ to be regarded as a worthy, reliable and independent news broadcaster by its peers and audience outside of the Arab world, than it was for the station to be seen as a mouthpiece for the views of the Arabs. As the owner of AJ, the emir of Qatar is closely associated with the views that the broadcaster expresses. We are told that he was personally involved in the decision to publish details of the Palestine Papers. This decision has been true to AJ's desire to be regarded, first and foremost, as a station that reports newsworthy items, even if this may be at the expense of the Arab world.

The details of the Palestine Papers has come as a surprise to some, while reinforcing what others thought was already out there in the public domain. The contents have been presented in the international press as showing the Palestinians to be more accommodating in their negotiating position than they have been given credit for. This has led the left-wing press to accuse Israel of intransigence, and of not being willing to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. For the liberals, this has proven that Israel does have a "partner for peace", which is contrary to the views expressed by a number of Israeli prime ministers over the years from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. For some, this proves that Israel has not wished to take the opportunity for peace when the Palestinians have been willing to do so.

I have viewed the revelations in a different way. For me, it has reinforced how complex the issues in the negotiations really are. In particular, it is clear that trying to find a "package" that address all the issues and that both parties can agree to is almost impossible. The so-called concessions that have come out of the Palestine Papers, and that the Palestinian side has been given credit for, have not been offered for free. It is easy to show willingness to compromise on critical issues if the price that you ask in return is one that will never fly. Under these circumstances, the concession offered is no compromise at all, but it can be dressed up to look like one. The "concession" that seems to have been most written about, is the fact that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has acknowledged that it is not realistic to expect Israel to allow 5 million Palestinian refugees to be accommodated within Israel. What a shock! How could there ever have been an expectation that a country of 7 million people would admit 5 million new citizens? So why does the Arab world not make a move to find permanent alternative arrangements for these people, who have been housed under awful conditions for the best part of 60 years. They were not expelled from their homes by Israel but left of their own accord despite the nascent state's government inviting them to stay. Now, the issue of the refugees needs to be addressed by the Arab world, and removed as a threat from the peace negotiations. It does not take a nuclear scientist to work out that Israel can never accommodate this volume of new citizens, even with the best will in the world. As such, it should not be a point for negotiation at all.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for some people has been the reaction of the Palestinian street to the revelation of the Palestine Papers. Whereas the international press has painted the Palestinians as the good guys and surprisingly willing to compromise in the interests of reaching a peace agreement, the Palestinian reaction has been negative. The Palestinian leadership responded immediately to the revelations by AJ by being concerned for their own safety. They denied that the compromises were their compromises, and accused AJ of mixing up the Israeli positions for their own. The man on the street believed this for a while.

The Palestinian leadership understood that their constituency would not like the details of what was made public. But why is this the case? Are the Palestinian people not interested in reaching a final status agreement that would allow them to live in peace in their own state alongside Israel? Apparently, the Palestinians are more concerned about being sold out, than they are about reaching a peace agreement. The Palestinian leadership was concerned that the Palestinian people would regard them as a traitors for offering concessions that went further than the Palestinian public is ready for. When it finally dawned on the man in the street that AJ had indeed published truths, demonstrations across the West Bank ensued while the members of the negotiating team lay low to try to deflect the risk that they and their families were under.

I was reminded of the situation that then-prime minister Ehud Barak found himself in, when he returned from Camp David after making wide-sweeping concessions to Yasser Arafat on the status of Jerusalem. The Israeli public was obviously not ready for the extent of these concessions and clearly did not approve. Despite this fact, there were no demonstrations and there was no threat to Barak's life. At the occasion of the next general election, he was unceremoniously dumped from power which ended that episode.

The leaks of the Palestine Papers has demonstrated the difficulty that faces the parties to the peace negotiations. Positions which give the parties credibility in the international community serve to weaken their support in their home constituencies, and vice versa. This reality applies as much to the Israeli team as it does to the Palestinians. Any compromise on land in the West Bank offered by the Israeli team will be met with massive opposition from the settler movement. This realisation serves as a source of great pessimism regarding the prospects for any success in the negotiations.

The leaks of the Palestine Papers has caused anguish and anger in the Palestinian community while giving the Palestinian negotiators positive press abroad. While it seems to have achieved nothing in progressing the peace talks, I believe that it has probably not done any lasting damage either. As with the Wikileaks which set the precedent for the Palileaks, once the initial surprise factor has been overcome, people seem to get back to their everyday business quite quickly. The revelations have not moved the course of international politics in one direction or another. Nobody has been forced to resign over the information revealed, and nobody has been physically attacked as a result. All it does is provide a more comprehensive backdrop for the events which follow, and allows the greater public a better understanding of the secret interactions.

The big winner out of the whole Palileaks affair is AJ. Whether they are loved or hated, they have certainly been the name on everybody's lips over the past few days. It has been said that even bad publicity is publicity, and this has been the case for AJ. Their offices were closed down in the West Bank and Gaza, but I am sure that this will be a temporary situation. The Palestinians understand the value of stations like AJ keeping the Palestinian issue in the news headlines.

As an afterthought, it has been interesting that the current two issues which are preventing the continuation of the peace talks were not covered in the Palestine Papers in any major depth. Israel's demands for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state remain unanswered. The Palestinians demands for Israel to freeze construction have not been agreed to. Could it be that these two issues were left out on purpose? Maybe even those revealing the innermost secrets have limits that they adhere to. It does give some food for thought.

No comments: