“Palestine Papers”: the casualties

Posted: February 17, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Palestine papers, peace process

As many PRRN blog readers will know by now, the leak of the so-called “Palestine Papers” to al-Jazeera claimed a couple of major casualties this past week.

The first was chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who resigned from his position on February 12. It isn’t entirely clear the extent to which he was pushed, fed up, weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, or simply trying to put the best face on a difficult situation. It must be said, however, that his stated justification for resigning was quite classy. According to the Washington Post:

Erekat, whom al-Jazeera commentators accused of selling out to Israel and who is battling to preserve his reputation at home, said in an interview in his Jericho office that by stepping down, he wanted to set an example of accountability.

“When the most complicated, deep breach that ever happened in Palestinian national security history happened in my office, people expect me to go on with business as usual?” he said. “I’m making myself pay the price for the mistake I committed, my negligence. These are the ethics and the standards. Palestinian officials need to start putting them in their minds.”

Erekat said the documents had been unlawfully obtained from the laptop computer of an employee in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department, which Erekat led. After a Palestinian investigative committee determined that the material was stolen from his office, Erekat said, he promptly stepped down. He said he was pressing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has still not responded, to accept the resignation.

Of course, in Palestinian politics it ain’t over til it’s over (and even then, it sometimes still isn’t over), so Erekat may well resurface in future negotiations.

The second casualty of the affair was the Negotiations Support Unit of the PLO, which Mahmoud Abbas has decided to disband:

The NSU was set up in 1999 to give legal, communications and policy advice to Palestinian negotiators, and was partially funded by a number of European countries.

It has a 25-strong staff and came under scrutiny following al Jazeera’s publication of the so-called Palestine Papers. Palestinian intelligence staff questioned the employees and determined that three of them had been behind the leak.

The trio were believed to have left the West Bank.

Since established in 1999, the NSU has played an important role in providing Palestinian negotiators with analytical and other support during the various rounds of peace negotiations. It has featured some very impressive staff too, both Palestinian and non-Palestinian.

Interestingly, however, the Palestine Papers also suggest the degree to which the NSU’s work was often framed in terms of optimal outcomes, rather than practical advice on negotiation approaches and possible trade-offs. On the refugee issue, for example, much of the leaked NSU analytical work was intended to underpin Palestinian claims for such things as refugee compensation (to the tune of $263 billion) or for refugee return (suggesting that Israel could absorb 2 million refugees). It included very little detailed analysis of alternative fall-back or compromise positions, or of the flexibility, vulnerabilities, or optimal mechanisms for changing the Israeli position. Similarly, the leaked work that the NSU did on refugee implementation mechanisms appears to have presented a single desired Palestinian model, rather than a detailed menu of options.

This is not to say that the work that was done is unimportant. It is certainly useful in helping to define Palestinian demands, and can play some role in buttressing those demands in negotiations by demonstrating (to Israel and the US) that they rest of a real factual and analytical base. On the other hand, showing that Palestinian refugee losses total $263 billion (depending in large part how you convert them to contemporary value) may get you precisely nowhere at the negotiating table with Israelis. What is needed is a clearly articulated set of strategic options, complete with possible advantages and disadvantages, for getting from the $3 billion or so that Israel has been willing to consider in the past to a much larger number. It may also require some analysis of internal negotiating dynamics, political constraints, and other factors shaping the positions of Israeli negotiators. There seems to have been little or no formal “red teaming” of Israeli negotiating tactics and positions by the NSU, although that can be a very useful mechanism anticipating and countering an opponent’s approaches and posture.

Of course, some of this may well be in the 90% or so of the NSU and other negotiator documents that weren’t leaked to al-Jazeera. It is also the case that even well-established states didn’t necessarily undertake such work in an effective and systematic manner. Certainly, the preparation work on the refugee issue undertaken by Israel, the US, the EU, or Jordan on the refugee issue has always seemed much less detailed and sophisticated than anything undertaken on this issue by the Palestinian side.

For now it doesn’t really matter—given the remarkable events currently underway elsewhere in the Arab world, and the hardline position of the Netanyahu government, it is hard to imagine that we’ll get to serious Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations any time soon. If and when we do, however, it might well be that more systematic strategic and tactical negotiations planning would be of use.

The disbanding of the NSU, combined with what may be a long hiatus in serious negotiations, also raises another issue: institutional memory. Simply put, governments and organizations have a quite remarkable tendency to sometimes forget what they once knew. Staff rotate or leave. Documents get lost in files. Issues have to be relearned all over again. The existence of the NSU provided a greater degree of Palestinian institutional memory (especially on detailed, technical issues) than would have otherwise been the case. Will that now gradually degrade?

As to the broader significance of the Palestine Papers, I’ve previously suggested that they largely confirmed what was generally understood by most observers of the peace process. As (former NSU staffer) Khaled Elgindy put it:

As someone who was involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for many years, including in the development of many of the documents now in question, I have been particularly struck by the extent and tone of the outrage surrounding the leaked documents. For those Palestinians and other Arabs who actively oppose a two-state solution, I can understand and appreciate their outrage over some of the “unprecedented concessions” contained in these documents.

On the other hand, for those who understand the basic requirements of a two state-solution-an outcome most Palestinians and other Arabs still say they favor, even as they remain highly doubtful of the other side’s intentions and the ability of their own leaders to achieve it-there hardly seems cause for surprise, at least as relates to the concessions on permanent status issues – if not on other matters.

While one may oppose specific decisions or positions adopted by the Palestinian leadership-something my former colleagues and I did often, sometimes successfully and other times less so-the sort of shock and horror now circulating throughout much of the Arabic-language media and in the blogosphere, much of it engineered by over-hyped and highly sensationalized reporting, seems largely misplaced. Indeed, the very notion of a negotiated settlement based on two states, when undertaken in seriousness and in good faith, requires that both sides make “unprecedented concessions.” What is so shocking is that the record now shows everyone that only Palestinians were willing to do so.

You’ll find further debate on the significance of all this in a very thoughtful panel discussion (featuring Elgindy, Noura Erekat, and Mark Perry) held last month at the Palestine Center.

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