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.