Midway through last week, I got a phone call from Doha: would I agree to appear that evening on the nightly presentation by al-Jazeera of documents leaked from the PLO negotiations department in Ramallah. The topic that evening was billed as an expose of security cooperation between the PLO and Israel and the PLO and Britain’s MI6 intelligence service.
Having just watched PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat respond, flabbergasted, in a live Jazeera broadcast, to the initial leaked papers–it was obvious he had no foreknowledge of what was about to be presented–I asked if I could review the security documents in advance. "Maybe we can give you 15 minutes notice," came the reply. I turned down al-Jazeera.
The broadcast that evening featured a series of western and Arab commentators, all known for their radical and at times pro-Islamist views. The discussion of every excerpt was slanted against the PLO leadership. I recalled PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas’ initial response to the leaks, to the effect that this was an attempt to defame him and kill prospects for peace. I don’t often agree with Abbas, but this time he was spot-on: the anonymous leakers, al-Jazeera, and behind it the government of Qatar, deliberately exploited the papers to lynch Abbas, the peace process and the Palestinian Authority.
Interestingly, at least locally they appear to have failed. In the West Bank, Palestinians did not get worked up about the PLO negotiating stance as revealed in the leaks. And in Israel, people were generally impressed with the way then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni handled themselves in the talks, as reported in the Palestinian documents.
There was also a lot to be learned from the leaks, both positive and negative, with regard to future prospects for a negotiated two-state solution. Not that any of the negotiating offers described in the leaks was new to those who have followed events closely. But the dynamic of the talks was revealing.
On the one hand, both sides made serious efforts to bridge the substantive gaps in their talks in 2008. Progress regarding the division of Jerusalem into two capitals was particularly impressive. Had Olmert’s own mistakes in the Second Lebanon War and his alleged involvement in corrupt practices not caught up with him, and had Livni been more adept at forming a new government after Olmert resigned, we would have seen more progress.
On the other hand, some of those gaps were indeed substantive. Concerning the settlement blocs, the leaks reflect a Palestinian position that would have required of Israel to uproot and absorb upwards of 150,000 settlers from Maaleh Adumim, Ariel and Efrat in addition to the mountain heartland settlements. While gaps concerning the number of 1948 Palestinian refugees to be absorbed by Israel seemed bridgeable, nowhere was the Palestinian position regarding the actual "right" of return–a stand understood by Israelis to imply a demand that Israel in effect admit it was "born in sin" in 1948–discussed seriously. Nor was there a serious discussion about arrangements for sovereignty and administration of the Jerusalem holy places.
And then there was the issue of the structure of negotiations in 2008 as reflected in the leaks. That Olmert and Livni, veteran political rivals, did not closely coordinate their tracks is clear. Livni, for example, refused to discuss Jerusalem while Olmert went into great detail on this topic. But Abbas and then-chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei were also apparently out of sync. Qurei offered Livni detailed maps of a territorial settlement, while Abbas (according to Olmert) claimed he didn’t know the terrain well. The duality of negotiating tracks on both sides reflects not only negotiating tactics, but also years of toxic interaction between the peace process and both Israeli and Palestinian internal politics. Had one of the tracks reached agreement, it is debatable whether the political structure on either side could have sustained and supported this success.
The leaks tell us little about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister, since there really have been no negotiations. Clearly, though, Netanyahu and his government are not candidates to discuss the issues with the degree of trust, openness and readiness to narrow the gaps that was displayed by Olmert and Livni.
Finally, at a much broader regional level, the radical and aggressive way al-Jazeera sought to manipulate the leaks against the peace process must also be understood against the backdrop of Hizballah’s successful power play in Lebanon and the danger that militant Islamists will exploit instability in Tunisia, Egypt and conceivably elsewhere in the region. In future, it may be far more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to recruit vital regional Arab backing for a reasonable peace settlement with Israel.