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:
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.
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