January 27, 2011
The Palestine Papers give the world an unprecedented look inside the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, but they also provide a fly-on-the-wall view of how key senior American officials view their role as negotiators which, as the paprs show, apparently means never taking any position to which an Israeli government might object. The series of six documents that provide a core element to understanding the debates that raged over Israeli settlements show just how willing the U.S. is to acquiesce to Israeli demands – and how willing they are to pressing the PA leadership to move forward on the negotiations despite Israel’s flaunting of international agreements, including freezing all settlement activity.
A February 2009 meeting memo (the subject of Part One of this series), set the tone for what was to follow – as the muted difference in perception of Israeli intentions between George Mitchell and his team and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat deepens. The disagreement will become the equivalent of a diplomatic donnybrook, a divisive debate between George Mitchell and his team on the one side and Saeb Erekat and the Palestinian Authority on the other. The debate, over settlements and Israel’s unwillingness to meet its international obligations, sets the stage for the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian Authority negotiations.
A second key memo in the Palestine Papers recounts a September 24, 2009 meeting between Erekat and Mitchell team member David Hale at the United Nations. The meeting follows President Obama’s first address to the United Nations General Assembly, during which he pledged the U.S. to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The stage is set for a confrontation between Erekat and Hale when Erekat challenges Hale over the announcement of new settlement expansion in the West Bank by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Erekat is angry – Hale attempts to change the subject. Erekat asks Hale whether Mitchell had confronted Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak on the settlements issue. "Did he ask him about the new settlements he announced?" Hale: "I don’t know. They met alone. Our intention is to move quickly to relaunch negotiations."
Erekat is not satisfied and suspects that a U.S.-negotiated moratorium on settlement construction does not include Jerusalem. "From the beginning we were clear and did not hide our position," he says. "If Jerusalem is not a part of the moratorium it is a non starter. You know what destroyed Camp David? It was Jerusalem. The U.S. underestimated the importance of Jerusalem. Your colleagues did that and it led to the collapse . . . For me Jerusalem is the is the same as the West Bank. No one, including your government says it’s not occupied territory. So by allowing them [the Israelis] this to take place [sic] we will be acquiescing to it. We cannot allow it." Hale is dismissive: "Our reaction," he says according to the minutes written by Palestinian notetakers, "is that obviously it is no surprise you are unhappy if the settlement package has imperfections (in this case Jerusalem) – but if you want a perfect settlements package you just won’t get it."
It is obvious from the minutes that Hale’s position shocks Erekat. It seems to him that the U.S. position requiring the cessation of Israeli settlements is being abandoned. "Let’s go back to the Roadmap," Erekat pleads. "It is U.S. language. You knew what you were writing. What we have is ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem . . ." The Roadmap, launched by President Bush and endorsed by the Quartet states that "At the outset of Phase I," Israel must freezes "all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements)."
It is at this crucial point that Hale seems to dismiss the Road Map requirements: "You are looking at words, not the numbers," Hale says. Hale’s claim is shocking – for him, and apparently for the U.S., the Roadmap requirements are just "words." For Erekat, they are a sacred international framework that in its first phase requires the Palestinians to abandon violence in exchange for the cessation of settlement expansion. The Palestinian Authority has kept its pledge. Now, Erekat is learning, the U.S. has no intention of pressuring Israel to do the same. Hale is chagrined: "Maybe we can help if we can get them not to take provocative measures," he says. Erekat can hardly believe what he is hearing – and he explodes.
"You know Bibi [Netanyahu]! I’ve heard this before and I’ve been there before. I simply cannot go into a process that is bound to fail. I am trying to defend my existence and way of life. You know I asked to meet with the Israelis several times – they refused . . ." Hale pushes Erekat – "So you would rather OK them building more . . ." An already angry Erekat gets angrier: "They’re the occupying power. They can do anything they want. I am not agreeing to anything . . ." and he goes on to explain that "When BO [Barack Obama] says settlements are illegitimate in front of the whole world, Israel continues, despite this and despite all international law . . . Why then did you reach the position that there needs to be a freeze, including natural growth? And why then did you change your mind? Why is it now changed to 'restraint’?"
After a meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu in New York just two days before the Erekat-Hale conversation, Obama had publicly called on Israel merely to "restrain" settlement construction, a usage Palestinians understood as a cave-in to Israel after months of unsuccessful efforts by Mitchell to secure Israeli agreement to a freeze. Erekat listened closely to the Obama speech – and noted the change: why "restraint?"
Erekat’s question might well have been rhetorical, for he knew precisely why the Americans had abandoned their position on a full settlement moratorium – the U.S. not only could get an Israeli agreement, but they had already stopped trying.
When George Mitchell enters the meeting he acknowledges Erekat’s position, but remains adamant: the U.S. wants the negotiations to begin despite the lack of a full settlement moratorium. He pressures Erekat. "I want to bring discussion to a conclusion. This can’t go on indefinitely. The President is strongly committed to supporting AM [Abu Mazen] and his government . . . We will stay the course on this. There will be setbacks. I hope you will join us by taking steps." Erekat is not convinced. "When you came up with the Roadap, you knew what you were doing. You said 'settlement freeze including natural growth.’ The logic was for Israel to do this, and for the Palestinians to get their act together . . . So we are doing our part . . . Let me be clear now: in Camp David, I told your negotiator Dennis Ross 'you personally belittled and undermined the importance of Jerusalem. This led to the collapse of negotiations.’"
George Mitchell seems exasperated by this – and lectures Erekat. "Proclaim victory once a while," he says, "rather than react to Netanyahu all the time. Set your objectives positively – don’t always be reacting." The meeting ends on this note, but from the Palestinian Authority point of view, Mitchell’s message is more than disappointing – and it is clear from the meeting minutes that the U.S. had not only once again failed to pressure Israel, but continued to underestimate the centrality of Jerusalem to the Palestinian people. The Palestinians, George Mitchell argues, should "proclaim victory," but for Saeb Erekat and his negotiating team, Mitchell’s message means the U.S. is out of touch with Palestinian realities – for it is impossible to proclaim victory if their land is being taken while the United States acts as an enabler.
Mark Perry is a journalist and author living in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of eight books, including the recently released Talking To Terrorists. He is a regular contributor to Asia Times and Foreign Policy and a frequent guest commentator on Al Jazeera.