Washington Watch: Speaking truth to power

If Palestinian election campaigns are anything like ours, there will be surplus of candidates making outrageous promises they can’t keep.

Mahmoud Abbas 311 (photo credit: MUHAMMED MUHEISEN ( AP))
Mahmoud Abbas 311
(photo credit: MUHAMMED MUHEISEN ( AP))
Despite his frequent threats to quit, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas doesn’t want to be tossed onto history’s garbage heap with the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia, so he decided over the weekend to shuffle his cabinet and schedule long-postponed elections.
Along the way, he also lost his chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, a 20-year veteran of verbal sparring with the Israelis. It may not seem important, since peace talks are in the deep freeze while both sides refuse to talk unless the other changes its attitude toward settlements.
Washington Watch: Price of Peace
Washington Watch: Labor’s love lost
But settlements are just a sideshow. The real issue is whether Israel and the Palestinians really want to make peace, or to avoid it by finding excuses to blame the other side for its absence. In the meantime, neither side seems to grasp the importance of the changes sweeping across the region.
Erekat’s resignation offers unintended insights into why peace remains so elusive. He took responsibility for the publication of 1,684 documents leaked to Al Jazeera by members of his Negotiations Support Unit (NSU), which advises Palestinian negotiators. Three foreign staffers believed responsible have since left the West Bank, and NSU has been disbanded.
The papers reveal details of more than 10 years of secret talks. Erekat claimed they were stolen and “deliberately” tampered with, and that their contents have been taken out of context as part of a conspiracy by Al Jazeera and Israel – talk about your odd couple – to discredit the peace process and “bring down” the Abbas government.
But Erekat’s problem was much greater than that: The documents were authentic. The real message of the Palestinian Papers was not how much the PA leadership was willing to compromise, but how it misled its own people.
While PA leaders were vowing steadfast support for the full ‘right’ of return for refugees, the removal of all settlements, no compromise on borders, full return of all land lost in 1967 including all of east Jerusalem and the Old City, they were saying something very different to their Israeli counterparts. In one document, Erekat was quoted telling the foreign minister: “It is no secret that on our map we proposed we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history.”
The number of refugees – he reportedly called them a “bargaining chip” – who could return would be limited to 5,000 over five years, the rest to be absorbed by the Palestinian state and other countries.
There would be land swaps allowing Israel to retain some settlements.
Sounds good, so what’s wrong with it?
Nothing, really.
THE DETAILS revealed in the Palestinian Papers were not new. Anyone following the peace process closely was aware of them, but the Palestinian people were being fed a different story. Their leaders assured them these core demands were inviolable.
Yet neither side was as uncompromising and intransigent as the other said.
The leaked documents shocked the Palestinian street. Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, had failed – refused, in fact – to prepare them for the difficult compromises essential to sealing a peace agreement leading to a two-state solution. There were charges of betrayal. Abbas and Erekat were accused of selling out their people; they had made promises they had no intention of keeping.
The real betrayal was their failure to speak the truth to the Palestinian street, and thereby build a peace constituency. Abbas may have misled his own people, but so did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Palestine Papers discredited Netanyahu’s claim that Israel has no partner for peace. More evidence appeared in the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times magazine reporting Abbas and former prime minister Ehud Olmert had made “far-reaching” progress in negotiations during 2008 and 2009. The two spoke frankly about compromises, but were not as forthcoming about their failure to pin down a deal when they had the opportunity.
Some of the blame for missed opportunities falls on the Obama administration, even though the Olmert-Abbas talks ended in late 2008. Washington failed to build on progress made in those talks as a starting point for its own stewardship, but instead diverted the process to a distracting dispute over settlements. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have capitalized on that blunder to derail the peace process and Washington seems clueless about how to get it back on track.
Abbas has called for long-delayed presidential and parliamentary elections in September. If those campaigns are anything like ours, there will be a surplus of candidates making outrageous promises they know they can’t keep, especially when it comes to negotiations with Israel.
The message of the Palestine Papers is not how much the PA leadership was willing to compromise, but how little it was willing to confide in its own people at a time when the Arab street across the Middle East is rising up against entrenched rulers.
Will it use the upcoming elections to speak the truth to its people, or just feed them more empty promises?