The last couple of months have seen a deluge of leaks. First we had the WikiLeaks ‘dump’ where the collective buttocks of the world’s diplomats clenched as their secret asides and throwaway comments went viral. Now, thanks to Al Jazeera and The Guardian, we have the ‘The Palestine Papers’, a collection of nearly 1,700 files, including “memos, e-mails, maps, minutes from private meetings, accounts of high level exchanges, strategy papers and even power point presentations”, all detailing the inner workings of the peace process from 1999 to 2010.
On one level the papers appear to confirm what many have suspected for quite some time. They show that, despite Israeli protestations to the contrary, the Palestinians are in fact interested in a negotiated peace settlement. The Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators agreed to allow Israel to annex all but one of the Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem, only to be told by Israel’s then Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, that “[w]e do not like this suggestion because it does not meet our demands”.
The papers also reveal quite how disconnected the PA is from the Palestinian people. This, again, is not news. The electoral defeat Fatah suffered at the hands of Hamas in 2006 was partly to do with the perceived ineffectiveness of the PA (which, since its inception, has been mostly staffed by Fatah officials), not to mention its corruption and nepotism.
However, these documents demonstrate exactly how wide the gap between the public rhetoric of the negotiators and what they say behind closed doors actually is. For instance chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat has said in response to the leaks, “any proposed agreement would have to gain popular support through a national referendum. No agreement will be signed without the approval of the Palestinian people.”
The documents however record him telling a Belgian foreign minister in March 2007, “I never said the diaspora will vote. It’s not going to happen. The referendum will be for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Can’t do it in Lebanon. Can’t do it in Jordan.”
There are many more revelations in the Palestine Papers – the PA acceptance of the right of return for only 10,000 of the 5 million Palestinian refugees and the MI6 plan that would act as a security blue-print for a PA crackdown on Hamas to name two. However, one outcome of these revelations needs seriously considering: what impact will the Palestine Papers have on Western policy towards the Palestinians?
The ‘Ramallah Model’
In his June ‘02 Rose Garden address, US President George Bush said,
And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East …
…the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure. This will require an externally supervised effort to rebuild and reform the Palestinian security services. The security system must have clear lines of authority and accountability and a unified chain of command …
This encapsulates what Geoffrey Aronson calls the ‘Ramallah Model’, a useful phrase that describes US policy towards the Palestinians in the post-Oslo period. Ariel Sharon’s Operation Defensive Shield, the brutal reoccupation of the West Bank, had taken place just two months previously. This was the military manifestation of Israel’s decision against the background of the Second Intifada in December ‘01 to designate the PA as “an entity that supports terror.”
In the passages quoted above we see the now well-documented coming together of Israeli and US policy under the rubric of the ‘War on Terror’, as well as an early draft for US-led regime change in the Arab world. Just as Sharon was bombarding Arafat’s Ramallah compound, Bush was aligning himself with Israeli policy by calling for a complete change of leadership (read: getting rid of Arafat) and an end to terrorism. A little later he would perversely describe Sharon as “a man of peace”.
However, it was not until Arafat’s death in 2004 that he got his wish. With the ’05 election of Mahmoud Abbas, and especially after the ‘07 appointment of former IMF representative and liberal technocrat Salam Fayyad to Prime Minister, Israel and the US-led ‘Quartet’ felt that they had a Palestinian government that could be negotiated with.
The election of Hamas in 2006 had caused a serious dilemma: they rejected past agreements made with Israel, they refused to recognise the Jewish state and were determined not to lay down their arms. They were, however, democratically elected.
This dilemma was quickly resolved by the outright rejection of the election results and, according to David Rose of Vanity Fair, basing his conclusions on confidential documents that were corroborated by former US officials, the attempt to oust Hamas by heavily arming Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan. This led to the civil war of 2007 and the subsequent split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
With this geographical and political division between the two most prominent Palestinian actors – Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza – the West could proceed apace with its policy of supporting Fatah while undermining Hamas. With Fatah’s new leadership, they were now seen as a “partner for peace” – regardless of their democratic credentials. Now a legitimate alternative was available, Hamas could be tackled. This was the context of the siege of Gaza and Operation Cast Lead.
This is the ‘Ramallah Model’; the basic premise being to promote Fatah in the West Bank by encouraging Israel to ease some restrictions, by promoting economic growth, cracking down on Hamas activists and generally conveying international legitimacy on the government in Ramallah. Meanwhile, the siege of Gaza is meant to undermine Hamas and prevent them from governing effectively. The cumulative effect of all of this is purported to demonstrate to the Palestinians that if they go the way of Fatah (negotiations, rejection of violence and so on) then they are rewarded – but if they go the way of Hamas then they are punished.
Quite apart from the cynical and undemocratic nature of this classic piece of realpolitik, it is a policy that is just not working and that has been further undermined by the Palestine Papers. The first problem with the policy is that the Palestinians (and many others) do not look at the issues in Gaza and reflect on the incompetence of Hamas; they look at Gaza and reflect on the brutality of the Israeli/Egyptian medieval siege.
The second is that the Ramallah-based government at the heart of the policy suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Mahmoud Abbas’ presidential term has long-expired and it is only US support that is keeping him in place. Additionally and more importantly the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank combined with settlement expansion reportedly undermines Palestinian confidence in the negotiation path taken by Ramallah. Things will have to improve considerably on the ground before Palestinians turn away from groups such as Hamas and throw their full support behind Fatah.
This being the case, the Palestinian Papers only serve to increase the distance between Ramallah and the Palestinian people, and as this distance grows, so does the gap between Western policy and the realities of the region.