The 1600 documents chronicling negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, published last week by Al-Jazeera and the Guardian, have been greeted around the world as testimony to the hopelessness of peace talks in the Middle East, the helplessness of the Palestinians and the heartlessness of Israelis. This was the gist of the Guardian's own editorial:
It is hard to tell who appears worst: the Palestinian leaders, who are weak, craven and eager to shower their counterparts with compliments; the Israelis, who are polite in word but contemptuous in deed; or the Americans, whose neutrality consists of bullying the weak and holding the hand of the strong. Together they conspire to build a puppet state in Palestine, at best authoritarian, at worst a surrogate for an occupying force. To obtain even this form of bondage, the Palestinians have to flog the family silver... One requires Panglossian optimism to believe that these negotiations can one day be resurrected.
M.J. Rosenberg, a former editor of the Near East Report, despaired here in the Huffington Post that the documents demonstrated that "clearly nothing less than a complete Palestinian surrender to Israel's right to every last inch of historic Palestine will ever be acceptable to the Likudniks and religious fanatics who control Israel's government." Nadia Hijab, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, blogged for CNN that "as the leaks expose, the Israelis have absolutely no interest in stopping their relentless colonization of occupied Palestinian land." Rashid Khalid, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia, told Pacifica radio that the cache of transcripts "seriously casts into doubt the idea that Israel would accept anything but complete capitulation by the Palestinians to absolutely everything they're demanding on every front." Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Leiberman, saw in the papers a similar lesson, its polarity reversed: "Even the most left-wing government of Olmert and [then Foreign Minister Tzippi] Livni did not manage to reach a peace agreement, despite the many concessions," Ergo, the Palestinians were never serious about peace. Around the world, pundits and politicians took the papers as proof that the Middle East peace process was, and is, a sham.
In fact, slogging through the documents produces the opposite impression. For one thing, the Palestinian negotiators, though they offered grave concessions about issues of consequence, did stand their ground. They insisted on Palestinian sovereignty over the sites they consider holy in Jerusalem. They insisted that the city remain Palestine's capital. They demanded that the land mass of Palestine be equal to that of the occupied territories (allowing for exchange of territories). They insisted that refugees be allowed to return to lands from which they were dislocated in 1948 and 1967. The transcripts show that Israel conceded to each of these demands, in part at least. The differences that remained between the sides were fraught -- Israel refused to cede six percent of the occupied territory, the sides disagreed about how many refugees, etc. -- but these differences were border towns on a great expanse of agreement.
What's more, the transcripts reveal that, for all their gravity, the talks had moments of warmth and understanding and humor, as negotiators worried aloud, vaudeville style, about what their husbands and wives would make of them, or riffed, as politicians do, about troubles with their constituents.
Taken together, reading the transcripts leaves one with the surprising but unmistakable impression that, pundits-be-damned, peace was possible. The final positions were not that far apart, the movement was constant and in the right direction, and the sides were speaking to each other not as irascible enemies, but as, well, partners in negotiation.
Why did the negotiations fail, then? Tzippi Livni, the leader of Israel's opposition Kadima party, who participated in the talks as then-foreign minister, has said that they didn't so much fail at all at end before they succeeded. Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, was forced out of office by corruption charges, the government fell, and new elections were called. In Friday's Yediot Aharonot, Olmert himself asserted that the negotiations were on the verge of producing an agreement when he left office. This may be true or it may not be true. But it's plausible enough to prevent us from concluding, as almost everyone has, that the talks failed because they had to fail.
No doubt, the transcripts show how hard it is for Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate away their differences. Very, very hard. Still, the surreal fact about politics here, is that almost everyone agrees about the ultimate agreement between the two sides will look like, even as no one sees clearly how to achieve it. More or less, it's the solution reached in the Geneva initiative, by Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals and politicians. Which is, more or less, the solution being approached asymptotically in the negotiations chronicled in the "Palestine Papers." Two states, each with Jerusalem as capital, 1967 borders with land exchanges here and there, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees returning to places from which they were dislocated in 1948 or 1967, and security guarantees of all sorts, from here to eternity. The devil is in the details, and it'll be a devil of a time working them out, but the big picture is clear. What the "Palestine Papers" provide is a nuanced portrait of this devilishly difficult work, moving forward.
My daughter just returned from a three day seminar with Palestinians, in 10th grade like her, where they had to solve the problem. My daughter chaired a subcommittee negotiating the future place of Palestinians, refugees and citizens, in Israel. When the kids got on their busses, they still hadn't achieved a settlement. "What's most depressing, Abba," she told me, "is that we were all kids, most of us were even girls, and we liked each other, but still we couldn't see eye to eye. It is really tough."
Yes it is. Obviously, negotiations didn't work this time. And they might not work next time. Still, judging from the transcripts of Olmert's and Abbas' efforts -- reflecting as they do sincerity, courage, empathy and resolve -- the day will come when we'll open the morning papers and find that it did work. The transcripts of the talks that succeed will look much like the "Palestinian Papers," only instead of 1,600 of them, there'll be 2,500 or 5,000. They will describe the future that we are all destined to share here, my daughter and her teenage Palestinian negotiating partners alike.