Palestine papers: America's approach to peace talks 'a failed policy'?

The Palestine papers, leaked documents purporting to reveal details of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, may create obstacles to ongoing talks – or sweep away failed strategies and allow new progress.

GPO-Amos Ben Gershom / AP / File
In this 2007 photo released by Israel's Government Press Office, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (l.) as they shake hands in Jerusalem. Newly released documents, dubbed the Palestine papers, show a behind-the-scenes look at negotiations between Israel, the U.S., and the Palestinians from 1999 to 2010.

The 'Palestine papers' released Sunday by Al Jazeera – leaked documents suggesting Palestinians were prepared make sweeping concessions on East Jerusalem, "right of return" demands, and other long-time sticking points in negotiations – are unlikely to make life easier for anyone.

The Palestinian leadership is likely to retreat at least for a time into intransigence, some Middle East analysts say, given the widespread perception in the Arab world that the documents – most dating from 2008 – show the Palestinians prepared to give away too much.

Israel, its international image already tarnished by its return to settlement construction, will see that image darken further as critics may see the documents as confirmation that Israel never has been serious about reaching a two-state solution.

But the documents’ release may cause the most trouble for US-led peace talks.

The released documents revealing surprisingly generous Palestinian offers going unanswered by the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Some critics of the US talks say the apparent intransigence of Israel in the face of Palestinian concessions mean that it is simply foolish for the US to continue working on its stated goal of "narrowing differences" – especially when the current Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as less compromising than Mr. Olmert’s.

In reality, the talks President Obama launched last September stalled well before Al Jazeera’s bombshell, but the Obama administration has continued to insist it is pursuing the talks, though for the time being in an indirect format. “The U.S. remains focused on a two-state solution and will continue to work with the parties to narrow differences on core issues,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in a statement Sunday.

“That [State Department] statement would not have passed the laugh test even before these documents came out, so it certainly can’t be taken seriously now,” says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation in Washington. These revelations underscore the impossibility that the present approach will achieve a two-state solution, he says. “This is a failed policy.”

In the weeks since Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton confirmed in a Washington speech that the US would revert to speaking bilaterally to the parties to try to reduce the differences between them, many outside experts have suggested the US needs to act more forcefully to get the peace process moving again.

Some regional experts have suggested that President Obama should lay out the “framework” for a two-state solution as the US sees it. David Makovsky, a peace-process expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has shared with administration officials and others from the region a map he has created, showing potential land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians. His map draws two-state borders that would not leave most of Israel’s largest settlements marooned in a future Palestine, while also avoiding a “Swiss cheese” Palestinian state.

Others say any solution imposed from the outside will never work.

What the Al Jazeera documents confirm, some critics of the administration’s approach say, are two-party “negotiations” so asymmetrical that they will never deliver results.

Despite the negatives of the documents’ release, regional experts with opposing views on the peace process are united in seeing a silver lining to the revelations.

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an official with the Bush administration over the period of most of the divulged documents, wrote Monday that the impact will be positive if Palestinians will accept the proposals their leaders made on East Jerusalem and refugees as the kinds of compromises the Palestinians are going to have to make.

"The release of these ‘Palestine Papers’ may be healthy," Mr. Abrams says. "Anything that helps Palestinian public opinion move toward greater realism about the compromises needed for peace is useful."

New America’s Mr. Levy says he is heartened that the revelations could open the way to a different US approach that could yet deliver progress. “I think we could have a refreshing, potential sweeping away of the dead wood of this process,” he says.

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