The Middle East Channel

Not worth the paper they're printed on

This week's release of the Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera television might well be a classic example of "burying the lede." While the revelations sparked revulsion among Palestinians about how much their leadership conceded in talks with Israel, for an American reporter the real story of the leaks is not in the West Bank, but in America; the focus of the story is not Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat; it's Barack Obama -- and U.S. special envoy George Mitchell.

A series of core documents of the Palestine Papers (dated September and October 2009) shows just how far the Obama administration has been willing to go to satisfy Israel -- to the point of abandoning prior pledges, international agreements, and American principles. At issue is the U.S.-negotiated "Roadmap for Peace," agreed to by the Quartet (the U.S., European Union, Russia, and the U.N.) in mid-2003. Among other things, Phase One of the "roadmap" envisioned a simple swap: In exchange for an end to violence, the Israelis would freeze all settlement building. 

For the last eight years the roadmap has been the mother's milk of U.S. efforts to resolve the conflict. It was at the heart of Barack Obama's Cairo address of June 2009. After reminding the Palestinians of their obligations to end violence, Obama focused on Israel. "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," he said. "The construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop." America's support of the Roadmap was reiterated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the following November, when she castigated Israel for expanding settlements in East Jerusalem. "Clearly this kind of activity is unhelpful and not in keeping with the obligations entered into under the 'Roadmap,''' she said.

The Palestinians took their obligations seriously: Beginning in 2004, the Palestinian leadership began reorganizing its security services. In 2005, the U.S. appointed a security coordinator to oversee this reform, and a U.S. general (Keith Dayton) recruited and trained 10 battalions of a National Security Force in Jordan to restore order in the West Bank. The NSF arrested Palestinian "extremists," jailed Hamas activists, and even (as the Palestine Papers show) killed Palestinians at the request of the Israeli security services -- creating a virtual Roadmap police state. While initially skeptical of Palestinian efforts, Israel began to cooperate with the Palestinian security services, urging them to assassinate "terrorists" who refused to abandon armed resistance to the Israeli occupation. But while the Palestinians attempted to meet their Roadmap obligations, the Israelis kept building -- expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Shockingly, at the same time that the U.S. was emphasizing the importance of the Roadmap agreement, U.S. special envoy George Mitchell was telling chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that the Roadmap didn't matter. On September 24, 2009, Mitchell assistant David Hale tells Erekat that the U.S. push for an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction might not cover Jerusalem. Erekat digs in his heels: "From the beginning we were clear and did not hide our position," he tells Hale. "If Jerusalem is not part of the moratorium, it's a non-starter." Hale is soothing: "Our reaction is that obviously it is no surprise you are unhappy if the settlement package has imperfections (in this case Jerusalem) -- but if you want a perfect settlements package you just won't get it."

Less than two weeks later, at an Oct. 1 meeting at the State Department, Mitchell (joined by David Hale, Mara Rudman, and Jonathan Schwartz -- the department's legal advisor) re-emphasizes Hale's point on Jerusalem -- and, in a discussion about a paper detailing the negotiations' terms of reference, signals that the U.S. will not hold Israel to its Roadmap obligations. "Why is there no reference to the Roadmap?" Erekat asks. Hale responds: "Why do you need that?" Again, Erekat is adamant: "…I won't abandon RM [Roadmap] phase I obligations." Mitchell pushes him: "I want to remind you that we need language that both sides can agree to," he says. But the key moment comes later in the discussion, as Erekat presses Mitchell on accepting language for a terms of reference agreed to by the Bush administration.

Mitchell: "Again I tell you that President Obama does not accept prior decisions by Bush. Don't use this because it can hurt you. Countries are bound by agreements -- not discussions or statements."

Erekat: "But this was an agreement with Sec. Rice."

Schwartz: "It is not legally binding -- not an agreement."

Erekat: "For God's sake, she said to put it on the record. It was the basis for the maps."

It is during this meeting that it slowly dawns on Erekat that, faced with Israeli intransigence, the Obama administration has abandoned the Bush administration's language on a "terms of reference" (which will frame the negotiations) and on Israel's obligations under the Roadmap. For him, the message is clear: When Israel insists, America retreats. Negotiations over territory will no longer be based on the '67 lines ("They didn't agree to it," Mitchell says), and a moratorium on settlement construction will not include Jerusalem. Erekat can hardly believe what he's hearing: "I want my obligations under the RM -- this is what we have been basing our work on. You are now doing this exercise all over again. A new RM [Roadmap]!" Mitchell is sympathetic, but unmoved. "I understand the frustrations," he says.

For those who celebrated Barack Obama's Cairo speech as a transformational moment in U.S.-Arab relations, the Palestine Papers provide sobering evidence of just how quickly America will retreat when faced with Israeli demands. Like the Mitchell team's description of the Roadmap, Obama's promises are not "legally binding -- not an agreement." Readers of the Palestine Papers are left with this uneasy feeling: George Bush and Condoleezza Rice were actually tougher on Israel than either Barack Obama or George Mitchell. So while Al Jazeera's four night, four hour, documentary on the Palestine Papers show (in the words of Al Ahram reporter Amira Howeidy) "a weak and desperate Palestinian leadership" willing to give up nearly everything for the mere promise of a state (the Right of Return, borders based on the lines of '67, insistence that Israel stop building settlements, sovereignty over all of East Jerusalem, reconciliation with Hamas, and even elections), the papers also show George Mitchell & Co. as eager supplicants to Israeli demands -- even at the expense of prior American agreements. The message to the Arab world is clear: They're not worth the paper they're printed on.

Mark Perry is an independent military and foreign-policy analyst based in Arlington, Virginia. His most recent book is Talking to Terrorists. He was among a group of select experts and journalists who were invited by Al Jazeera to study the documents and their findings in Doha prior to their release.

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Getting real about democratic reform in the Arab world

One year ago this week, a United States Institute of Peace report warned that the widening moral, ideological and social gap between regimes and societies had left Arab regimes vulnerable to "systemic domestic crises and exogenous economic, political or security shocks." But if the tumultuous protests in Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria and most recently Egypt are to have any kind of silver lining, they must be the catalyst for a major reevaluation of how the U.S. can most effectively promote democratic change in the Arab world.

For starters, this effort should reexamine the "demand side" approach that has long guided U.S. democracy assistance programs. This approach assumes that local civil society groups can acquire the capacity to prod regimes to reform. While important, by themselves civil society groups can achieve little. On the contrary, substantive political change will never unfold absent high-level efforts by our national leaders and diplomats to encourage Arab regimes to supply substantive constitutional, legal and institutional democratic reforms. U.S. democracy promoters are well aware of the need for such a supply side strategy. But many, and particularly those in government, question whether the U.S. has the diplomatic leverage to press Arab rulers to move beyond the boundaries of state-managed political participation.

The answer to that very valid point is now before us. By calling for the very downfall of discredited rulers, Arab protestors have provided the U.S. the leverage our policy makers say is missing. There has never been a better moment to make clear to the region's ruling elites that standing between them and the marchers is a workable alternative, one that is far better than the abyss of a violent clamp down: to begin a genuine (as opposed to cosmetic) dialogue within the pinnacle of the state -- and with opposition leaders themselves -- about how to build genuine and effective democratic governance.

Such a dialogue does not presuppose -- and is unlikely to produce -- regime downfalls. In contrast to Tunisia's full-blown autocracy, the leaders of Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait have permitted a measure of state-controlled competition and pluralism. The institutional apparatus associated with these experiments in "liberalized autocracy" may be frayed and discredited in the eyes of many Arabs. But they are likely to survive, thus creating the complicated but unavoidable political landscape upon which any effort to move beyond destabilizing bouts of state-managed political liberalization and de-liberalization must unfold.

And so the question facing governments and oppositions, as well as Western democracy assistance organizations, is this:  how can a serious dialogue begin in a context of growing polarization between regimes and oppositions, and within oppositions themselves? From Rabat to Amman, autocracies have skirted genuine democratization by fostering and magnifying conflict between Islamists and secularists. By giving just enough space to both groups, while also denying them any real power, regimes have encouraged secularists to look to autocracies for their ultimate protection.

To undermine this cynical protection racket, Islamist and secularist opposition activists must hammer out a common vision of reform. The U.S. and other Western states, acting through both international and local NGOs, should avidly encourage this kind of peace making and dialogue within Arab oppositions.

If and when these dialogues produce serious proposals, they must then be directed to those regime actors who evince some interest in genuine political change. Many of these actors, including President Hosni Mubarak's son (and possible heir) Gamal, will surely view these dialogues as little more than an opportunity to reimpose the old rules of the game. But it is also possible that today's cynics can be prodded to see in a moment of profound crisis a chance to transform the façade of state-managed participation into a structure of genuine democratic participation.

For this to happen we need a strategy geared to the particular challenges of state-managed liberalized autocracy. President Obama's remarks about Tunisia's democratic opposition during his State of the Union speech offer an inspiring start. Equally important are those sections of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) dedicated to democracy and human rights. But while the QDDR calls for partnering with "those governments and local organizations...that show strong commitment to development and democracy," it has little to say about how to get regimes to be part of the solution rather than the problem. If we want to achieve something more than inadvertently sustaining the Potemkin reform strategies of the Arab world's wily autocrats, that particular conversation must begin now, if not yesterday.

Daniel Brumberg is a Senior Advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis at the United States Institute of Peace and Co-Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.

AFP/Getty Images