Amjad Atallah: Leak shows Obama less willing to insist on ’67 borders than Bush
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In the last few days, Al Jazeera has released what they’re calling the “Palestinian Papers”, almost 2,000 released documents of Palestinian, Israeli, and American negotiations in the so-called peace process that reveal some of the following: “the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to concede illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and to be ‘creative’ about the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount; the compromises the Palestinian Authority was prepared to make on refugees and the right of return; details of the PA’s security cooperation with Israel; and private exchanges between Palestinian and American negotiators in late 2009, when the Goldstone Report was being discussed at the United Nations.” Now joining us to give us his take on what has been revealed by Al Jazeera is Amjad Atallah. He’s the codirector of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. From 2000 to 2003 he served as one of the legal advisers for the Palestinian negotiating team. Thanks for joining us.
AMJAD ATALLAH, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION, MID EAST TASK FORCE: Thanks, Paul. Thanks for having me.
JAY: So, first of all, what jumps out at you?
ATALLAH: Well, I think that the weight of the documents is the first thing that I think has an impact. It’s not just one document. It’s not a smoking gun that says, you know, here’s one day where somebody said this. What it looks like is that we’re looking at an archival treasure trove of almost ten years of documents that show a consistent pattern of behavior on all three sides, a consistent pattern of behavior by the Israelis, by the Palestinians, and by the United States. And that consistent pattern of behavior effectively shows that negotiations are not going to lead to a two-state agreement.
JAY: If you start with the overall theme of what Al Jazeera itself has highlighted, one sees a Palestinian Authority, in some eyes, “complicit”, some commentators have said “traitorous” to the Palestinian people. Others see a PA that’s simply cornered but without any real power in this process. Maybe you can talk a bit about this and what are some of the highlights that seem to point to that.
ATALLAH: Well, I think the Palestinian public itself over the years has grown sort of accustomed to the compromises of the Palestinian leadership; even under the former president, Yasser Arafat, were prepared to make with the Israelis in order to have a two-state deal. I mean, the first compromise and the first biggest compromise was of course that the Palestinians agreed to shift from demanding a secular democratic state in all of historic Palestine, with Jews and Arabs living equally. They shifted from that to arguing for a state just for Palestinians on 22 percent. Now, for Palestinians, for the majority of Palestinians, that was the compromise. They thought, well, we’ve given up 78 percent. After that, there’s nothing else that we should be allowed or that we should have to give up. What the negotiations show, and I guess what a lot of the papers are showing, or something I guess those of us that are already inside realized, which is, of course, that that was only where the compromises started. The Palestinians were forced to start from that point and begin to make compromise after compromise after compromise on the nature of a two-state agreement. And so at the end of the day, I mean, some of these documents that are showing the conversations between Livni and Saeb Erekat and Ahmed Qureia show that in fact the Israelis were demanding and the Palestinians were almost accepting that Israel would have to maintain full security control of anything called a Palestinian state. The Israelis weren’t willing to discuss the 1967 borders as the baseline for the state, and they weren’t willing to discuss Jerusalem. As you saw in some of the papers, the Palestinians even offered that Israel could keep every Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem except for one, and the Palestinians would accept that; and the Israeli response to that was, we recognize that that’s a generous offer from your side, but we’re still not accepting it. And so–.
JAY: Which from the Palestinian point of view makes the PA complicit with the ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem.
ATALLAH: Yeah, for some Palestinians that’s how it would be interpreted. The concept of two states wasn’t necessarily meant to be two pure ethnic states at the beginning. When the Palestinians accepted it in 1988, the idea of two states, they didn’t necessarily say that Palestine was going to be an exclusively Arab country and Israel was supposed to be only an exclusively Jewish country. Now, the negotiations, because the Israelis have demanded that outcome, the negotiations have tended in that direction and the Palestinians have, unfortunately, fallen into the trap of trying to accommodate, trying to respond to the Israeli demands.
JAY: The big issue about the release of the Palestinian papers is not so much that most people that follow the story didn’t think this was what was going on ; it’s that the public position of the PA was quite contrary to this. For example, the PA’s never, if I understand it correctly, officially, publicly given up on the right of return, where, based on these papers, they clearly have in terms of the negotiations.
ATALLAH: That’s true, and I think that’s one of the very emotive issues. I mean, Jerusalem and refugees are the two most emotive issues. It looks like in the minutes that were taken, that the Palestinian negotiators are heavily concerned with the borders–where the borders are going to be, how they’re going to be decided–but not so much with the refugee issue, or not so much specifically with Jerusalem. But, ironically, for the Palestinian public those are the two most emotional issues. Whether the Palestinians have an extra kilometer of land in the West Bank or not isn’t nearly as important as whether the Palestinian refugees have a right of return, or how that right of return is implemented. And the same is true, of course, for Jerusalem, which is not only important for Palestinians but is important for the larger Muslim world as well.
JAY: I mean, one wonders why the PA was even giving in on these, in the sense that how could it ever have sold this to the Palestinian public.
ATALLAH: That’s a good question, and I think the answer would be–without knowing for sure at the end of the day what an agreement would have looked like, I think the idea was that Palestinians would accept at the end of the day an agreement that provided them with independence, even if it sacrificed all these other things, if at least the Palestinians who live in the major cities in the West Bank could see themselves to be free.
JAY: And the other thing these papers must do to Palestinian public opinion–although–I was in the West Bank only a few months ago, and I don’t think this (what I’m about to say) is any big surprise to Palestinians either, but if the Palestinian Authority’s playing such a subservient, conciliatory role in the negotiations, if there ever was a two-state solution, Palestinian people must think that’s the role that state’s going to play as well.
ATALLAH: That’s right. And it comes out in the papers. It comes out that the Israelis had no intention of allowing a real state. They were prepared to accept something called a state, but it would not have had any trappings of sovereignty.
JAY: Now, when it comes to the issue of the ’67 borders and the PA’s focus on the issue of the ’67 borders–and many people on the Arab Palestinian side of the fence have been saying that that is the issue–the papers tell us something about the American position on that. What is that?
ATALLAH: Well, it shows that the Bush administration–this is difficult for me to–I mean, I’m still trying to internalize this. It shows that the Bush administration was actually more principled in its approach to the borders issue than the Obama administration was. There is one document, startling to me, that Condoleezza Rice was in a meeting, I believe, in Germany on refugees, in which she recommended that maybe the refugees could be sent to Chile. That is surprising. I wonder if the Obama administration would ever have followed up on some crazy idea like that. But on the other side, the Bush administration apparently did say the 1967 borders are the baseline for any two-state deal. If there are going to be land swaps, they’re going to be from the 1967 border. Now–and the Israelis have never accepted that position, but the Americans had that position. The Israelis simply ignored the United States and continued with negotiations as if the US didn’t exist. But that was the US position, and the Palestinians took some comfort knowing that that was the US position. Apparently in the documents, when Saeb Erekat was discussing this with George Mitchell, George Mitchell effectively made it clear that they were not going to start with the 1967 borders, because the Israelis had effectively vetoed it. And if you’re going to start from that position, it’s unclear how the Obama administration thought that they would ever actually have any meaningful talks whatsoever.
JAY: It’s so unclear, I’m not even sure what to ask you next. The whole public positioning has always been about starting from the ’67 borders. But the PA then went ahead and had the negotiations anyway.
ATALLAH: Right. And I think the hardest question for a Palestinian negotiator to respond to now–you can argue that, okay, well, we negotiated with the Israelis for one year, for two years, for five years, for ten years in the hopes that the Israeli government would provide us with freedom and independence. After 20 years of negotiations, after 20 years of these negotiations in which the Palestinians have, one can argue, provided more concessions than they could actually pass with their public, have offered more concessions than many Israeli supporters in the United States would ever have imagined, have provided more concessions, and the Israelis have still said no, then I think the question to the Palestinian negotiating team is: so why continue negotiating? In fact, haven’t you used these–hasn’t Israel used these negotiations as a cover to simply continue the occupation? And there’s actually one document where Livni tells the Palestinians, I know you think that we’re using negotiations and building settlements at the same time so that we can take more and more land under cover of the talks; and that may have been the position of other governments, but it’s not my position. Well, it doesn’t appear, in fact, that it wasn’t her position; it does look like this was a constant position from the Labor government, the Kadima government, and now from the Likud government.
JAY: So what is left of a PA foreign-policy negotiating policy? I mean, is this–I mean, as we both said, most Palestinians kind of thought this anyway, but now that it’s so out in the open, where do they go from here, the PA?
ATALLAH: I think that this is the biggest challenge for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah right now. Their own future has been dependent on their patronage with the United States and with Israel and with negotiating. They haven’t actually provided any incentive for Israel to actually end the occupation. Quite the contrary. Now, now that this is all out in the open, I think that they’re going to have to do a complete reevaluation of Palestinian policy, a complete reevaluation of inclusiveness among the Palestinian parties and among the Palestinian public, and a complete reevaluation of their goals and methods, because the public is going to see this and they’re going to say, alright, this is useless, this is a waste of time; this is worse than a waste of time, this is killing us; why have you been doing this if all that happens every time you meet is that you provide another concession that we would never accept anyway? And that–whether they’re up to the task of actually coming up with a strategic review, you know, I think that’s the big question. But it’s also a question I have for the Obama administration. The Obama administration could have pretended for a long time that they could just continue the Bush policy–or Bush policy minus–and hope that something new would come out of the negotiations. But at this point, if they see all these documents–and one would have presumed that they would’ve seen these documents anyway in the past–now that they’ve seen them, now that they’re in the open, it’s very clear that the United States cannot simply go into these meetings and say, well, this is the Israeli position; we’re going to weigh on you, because you’re the weaker party, to accept them. If the Palestinians were going to accept whatever Israel was going to offer, they would have accepted it a long time ago. But it’s very clear that the Palestinians can’t accept what Israel has to offer, and what Israel has to offer is a continued occupation.
JAY: Just finally, is this the end of Abbas?
ATALLAH: I think a lot depends on how the Palestinian leaders respond going forward. I mean, think if they’re very defensive, if they just try to hold the fort and say, well, we never made these concessions, well, these concessions were only theoretical and we never had a deal to begin with, etc., and just give us one more time to negotiate with Netanyahu and things will be okay, I think that will finish them. I don’t think that they can go in that direction.
JAY: But isn’t that what they’re already saying? They’re either denying what’s in the the Palestinian papers or they’re giving the kind of argument you just described.
ATALLAH: Well, that’s the first 24 hours. I mean, I think Nabil Shaath has already gone on air saying that he thinks that the documents are genuine, and The Guardian was reporting that several senior Palestinian officials told them that they thought the documents were genuine. So, I mean, I think they’re beginning, maybe, to walk their way back from that. But whether they do or they don’t, I mean, it’s in their hands. So I think it’ll–their future is going to be determined by what they do in the days ahead, not what they’ve done in the past.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
ATALLAH: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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