24 Jan 2011

Palestine Papers leak could fuel grassroots unrest

The leak of the Palestine Papers will further undermine the PLO and could strengthen support for Hamas, write Kate Nevens and Jessica Forsythe of Chatham House.

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock (Reuters)

The Palestine Papers revealed by The Guardian and Al-Jazeera raise serious question marks over the future of Middle East peace.

The papers – records of hundreds of meetings, emails and secret proposals – document ten years of failed negotiations and controversial concessions over territory and Israeli settlements.

For those who have been following the hard realities of the peace process for the past two decades, these revelations will not come as a great surprise. Palestinians have long suspected that their PLO negotiators weren’t driving a hard enough bargain, too willing to concede to Israeli demands and “sell-out” on core principles, such as refugees and the future status of Jerusalem.

The Palestinian negotiating position is also inevitably constrained. As Nelson Mandela once noted, “only free men can negotiate”.

As unequal partners, unequally-supported internationally, the PLO has proved unequal to the task of overcoming the imbalances inherent in any form of negotiation.

What does come as a surprise, however, is the tone of some of the PLO offerings. With a tellingly deferential use of Hebrew, the chief negotiator Saeb Erekat is quoted as saying that the Palestinans were ready to concede the “biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history”. Such language seems to betray a lack of strength, or faith, in their own ability to bargain and in many Palestinian eyes, this will represent a key moment when the PLO forfeited their credibility as negotiators.

It also reflects a reality that many Palestinians and others have long been pointing to – as unequal partners, unequally-supported internationally, the PLO has proved unequal to the task of overcoming the imbalances inherent in any form of negotiation.

The current revelations will only harden the positions of those who think the negotiating process has only ever been a convenient cover for Israel to continue expanding its occupation of Palestinian territories, whilst co-opting their Palestinian partners into the bargain.

Political casualties

The Palestinians will not be the only ones to take a knock to their integrity. EU and US officials will be vilified for allowing the terms of reference to shift so far in the direction of Israeli settlements.

Israeli officials often bemoan the lack of a partner in peace, but if the veracity of these documents is to be believed, this is far from the case. The Palestinians appear to be doing the utmost to provide the groundwork for an agreement, yet there’s very little impetus from the Israeli side.

The papers are likely to have an impact at grassroots level, both in Palestinian territories and perhaps across the region, possibly influenced by the popular unrest seen in nearby Jordan and Tunisia. It is widely believed that Hamas will benefit, as the pervasive discontent with existing leaderships continues.

Palestinian officials are now accusing Al-Jazeera of distortion and are casting doubts over the papers’ authenticity. However, with over 1,600 documents about to be made public, any effect will be difficult to contain.

In the mould of WikiLeaks, the papers will lead to diplomatic embarrassments and short-term losses in the – already stalled – peace talks. But increased transparency may also be the one thing the peace process needed to get it back on track long-term.

By Kate Nevens and Jessica Forsythe, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House