The most important—and, perhaps, the only—aspect to the Israel-Palestine peace process that the “Palestine Papers” have revealed is not that Palestinian negotiators offered more than most had previously believed, but that neither party during the 2007-8 talks was able to trust that the other would or could deliver on what it offered.
Olmert’s government was, of course, in an openly precarious position: “openly” because we were aware, more or less, what they offered at the time. Due to the 2006 Lebanon War and a series of criminal investigations that were ongoing from the beginning of 2007 through the end of his term, it is an understatement to say that Olmert entered the conferences weakened. His approval ratings in May 2007 had reached approximately three percent. The strength of Olmert’s government was tenuous: Yisrael Beiteinu left the coalition in early 2008, in protest of even holding peace talks; it is doubtful that Shas would have remained had a settlement been reached. The combination of Kadima, Labour, and Meretz would have been enough to form a government and approve a peace deal. But it would not have been sufficient to sell any settlement reached at Annapolis to the Israeli public.
Ariel Sharon barely managed to pull out of Gaza, and he had a military record (say of it what you will). Olmert, nicknamed by this time “miserable failure,” had only a record of corruption. It was unclear at which point he would be indicted and forced to resign his post; once this happened (perhaps sooner, perhaps later in this counter-factual, depending on the politics of the court system), everything would be up the air and the survival of any signed agreement would, in turn, be wholly dependant on the whims of Israel’s political elite. Labour, due to Amir Peretz’s sheer incompetence during the Lebanon War, was in a shambles, and Ehud Barak (at the time, tied with Netanyahu for least popular former Israeli PM) was its new leader. Barak, I suspect, would have supported a peace deal wholeheartedly; whether he would have supported Livni’s bid to succeed Olmert in order to ensure its survival is an entirely different question.
The key would be to avoid a new Knesset election until all the steps of the peace deal had been implemented. A new election would a) be more unpredictable than Ehud Barak and b) would be recognized by the Israeli right as its only chance to guarantee the death of a deal it opposed. An indictment of Olmert—coming potentially at any time—could have led to such an election, in which the political skill of Benyamin Netanyahu and the sheer anger of a united religious and secular right would be difficult forces to reckon with. This is not to say that Olmert’s (or a Kadima-led) government would not have been able to survive or implement any plan for Palestinian statehood, or that a majority of Israelis would have opposed such a plan. It is to say that its ability to do so was by no means certain, because of a) the fickle nature of Israeli politics, and b) the ability of a minority to derail the process from within/cast the matter in terms of Jews turning against Jews*, rather than a peace process.
Which brings us to this week’s revelations. It is not shocking that the Palestinian Authority was willing to offer large concessions in order to achieve statehood. It is not shocking that the moderate faction would behave more moderately than the extreme. And, while it is not shocking that the P.A. offered these concessions only under the veil of secrecy, acting wholly different in public, it is quite telling. This, too, we (the public) knew in 2007—and so did the Israelis.
What we did not have was knowledge (or perhaps merely confirmation) of just how difficult a task it would have been for the P.A. to convince its people to accept such a deal. The authority of the Palestinian Authority would have evaporated overnight. Not because an overwhelming, or even small majority of Palestinians would have opposed the deal—this, I cannot and will not state. Rather, the death of the P.A. and any signed agreement would have been the result of the vehement opposition of a significant minority: even if one, like me, optimistically terms Hamas a minority, its significance cannot be ignored. It is, after all, the elected government of Gaza and arguably has (and had, in 2007) more legitimate authority there than the P.A.
The P.A., entering the talks, was also a peace partner in an unstable position: a government that had abjectly failed in the task of nation-building (the only task, moreover, through which it could have reinforced its governmental authority), with only tenuous control over only a portion of the Palestinian territory and people. An agreement would likely have sparked civil war; sans Israeli and/or American intervention, I’d place my bets on Hamas. Outside intervention might, in this scenario, be enough to ensure the survival of the P.A.: but would this government be perceived as anything other than the puppet of Israel and the United States?
For my evidence, I submit merely the reaction of Hamas, the Palestinian people, and portions of the radical so-called “Left” over the last several days. (Mondoweiss, purportedly publishing some sort of reasonable anti- or post-Zionist perspective, has offered drivel fantasizing about torturing and then—quite slowly, mind you—executing the P.A. leadership for “treason.”) Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator in 2007-8, believes his life is now in danger. Abbas and Fatah’s leadership have denied the veracity of the documents; those confirming them have acted outside the leadership structure (Shaath sounds almost like he’s doing so as a means to distance himself from negotiations in which he took part — before, perhaps, someone else blames him). True, the P.A. still it has its supporters. But this split—which runs the risk of undermining what little real authority the P.A. has left—has been caused because it has been revealed that, over three years ago, the Palestinian Authority discussed making (large, yes) concessions to the Israeli government in exchange for a Palestinian state.
If the result of the talks which followed the Annapolis Conference had been a signed peace agreement laying out a plan for Palestinian statehood, it is unclear whether Olmert’s government would have been able to survive long enough to carry it out. On the other hand, it now appears incredibly unlikely that the individual members of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership would have literally survived long enough to implement such a deal. And, I suspect, both sides knew this about the other, and about themselves.
At this point, I should make the following clear: I do not believe this means that the Annapolis Conference and 2008 talks were just theater; I do not believe that both sides were simply stalling; I do not believe that a two-state solution is impossible. On Israel’s part — well, there’s an old Vulcan saying: “Only Nixon can go to China.” Hard is not impossible. Moderate Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, needs to be take seriously and be seriously supported in the process of building the foundations of a state — and finding some way to restore their credibility with their people. (The damage was done before these papers, and, for the most part, has little to do with them, and everything to do with corruption and graft.)
*Which I am eminently not the most qualified person to make.
**I supported the Gaza withdrawal, but the images — and reality — of Jewish soldiers dragging Jewish citizens from their homes made me break down. This was the goal of the settlers who refused to leave: call it a PR stunt if you will, but there was a degree of truth in the sadness I felt. Gaza settlements, in this respect, were peanuts compared to what withdrawing from the West Bank would entail: it will be played as Israel against the Jews, and it will convince some — at least for a time.