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An Initial Reaction to the Palestine Papers

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It will be a few days before anyone can offer a thorough reaction or analysis of the over 1,600 confidential documents, known as the Palestine Papers, leaked to Al Jazeera about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations spanning a decade. But an initial reaction is warranted to the central revelation made in these documents, namely the unprecedented territorial compromises made by Palestinian negotiators on East Jerusalem and turned down by Israel.

To set the proper context for discussing Jerusalem, it's important to understand the legal framework under which the city falls: West Jerusalem is Israeli, part of the state created in 1948; and East Jerusalem is Palestinian, illegally occupied and annexed by Israel in contravention to international law and UN resolutions. Without a single country recognizing this annexation, Israel's takeover of East Jerusalem is regarded as illegitimate by the international community. If international law were to be strictly implemented, Israel would be required to completely withdraw from all of East Jerusalem.

The peace process is based on international law, but it is actually more flexible, allowing some wiggle room to take into account the demographic reality, facts on the ground, and some political and religious sensitivities. This flexibility makes perfect sense if both parties were negotiation in good faith. The problem here is that Israel has not been doing that. Throughout the peace process, Israel treated the negotiations as a charade while it continued to unilaterally impose its reality on the ground, rapidly expanding illegal settlements around East Jerusalem, destroying Palestinian neighborhoods, and driving Palestinians from their homes. Israel is fundamentally changing the very character of the city in order to minimize the amount of land it ends up having to give the Palestinians. But the longer this process continues, the less likely will the Palestinians be willing to accept (and rightly so) whatever unviable patches of territory left for them as a state. As Israel's former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami himself acknowledged, large settlements like Ma'ale Adumim (East of Jerusalem) make Palestinian territorial contiguity "very difficult to imagine."

The American stated position (though not policy) has been quite good, sharply critical of Israel's policies in the Occupied Territories. In the words of Hillary Clinton:

The position of the United States on settlements has not changed and will not change. Like every American administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. We believe their continued expansion is corrosive not only to peace efforts and two-state solution, but to Israel's future itself.

What's new in the latest leak is that, apparently, Palestinian negotiators have privately conceded large parts of East Jerusalem to Israel, including areas where Israeli settlement expansion continues to the public protest of the Palestinian leadership. Much of the immediate reactions to this revelation have focused on the implications for the Palestinian Authority in light of these major and unpopular concessions for nothing in return. But the other half of that story, namely Israel's rejection of those concessions as insufficient, is more worthy of attention for us here in the US.

In a live interview on Al Jazeera a few hours ago, former Israeli foreign minister Ben-Ami reacted to the detailed nature of these far-reaching concessions by saying "the Israeli side is clearly taken aback by the seriousness of the Palestinian position," and expressed disappointment with the negative Israeli reaction to it. The first thing this revelation does is lay rest to the silly Israeli mantra of "there is no Palestinian partner for peace." Indeed, it's looking quite the opposite at this point. If they cannot even react positively to these far-reaching concessions, then what has long been clear to experienced analysts ought to now be clear to all observers: the current right-wing coalition government in Israel is incapable of voluntarily achieving a viable two-state solution. For any future negotiations to bare the potential of being fruitful, a major shift in the domestic, regional, or international equilibrium is required. Even a subtle shift in US policy could deliver the needed shakeup to the current deadlock, though Hillary Clinton's recent displeasure with a possible UN resolution seeking what American diplomatic pressure and military incentives have failed to achieve (a halt in settlement expansion) is no promising sign.

In the meantime, Palestinians are not doubling down on the US-led peace process to deliver an end to the occupation. Instead, they are seeking supportive resolutions from the United Nations, recognition from the international community, and are carrying out direct non-violent resistance to the occupation in collaboration with Israeli peace activists, and boycotting the occupation and settlement products. Whether the US will to continue to be relevant to the struggle to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depends on whether it is willing to shift its policy towards a more balanced and practical approach. That begins with the US vote in the anticipated UN resolution on settlements possibly in the coming weeks.