Now that the sound, the fury and the dust from the Al Jazeera leaks are beginning to fade, the inevitable question is: what are we to learn from the material that was published? What are we to learn from the way the material was presented by the various parties? And finally the inevitable question: who are the winners and losers of the leaks?
First, the dry conclusions that have been pointed out by commentators around the world including the New York Times: there were serious and constructive talks between Ehud Olmert’s government and the Palestinian Authority; and the differences between Israel and the Palestinians, while not negligible, were by far not as deep as both politicians and the press seemed to imply.
Common wisdom is as follows: Al Jazeera is close to Hamas and wanted to harm Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiating team, since they are against a negotiated peace agreement. They therefore wanted to portray Abbas and his team as selling out to Israel, as weak “collaborators with the Zionists.” It was supposed to be a shock that Palestinians were making concessions on the right of return to Israel within the 1967 borders and on Jerusalem, including the Old City.
The interesting question is, why indeed there should have been any shock at all, as most Israeli commentators have pointed out. The basic parameters of any future peace agreement were already formulated by Bill Clinton in the year 2000, and they were reasserted in the Geneva Accords. None of the contents of the Al Jazeera leaks differ dramatically from either. Anybody who was shocked would have to be profoundly misinformed about the peace process in the last twelve years.
It might indeed be that Abbas, Saeb Erekat and Ahmed Qureia will have to be less forthcoming in the foreseeable future to counteract the impression Al Jazeera tried to create. But so far Palestinian reactions have been less negative than many expected.
On the international level, the credibility of the Palestinian leadership has actually increased. It is clear that they mean business, and that the Netanyahu-Lieberman line that there is no partner for serious negotiations is groundless. This will certainly increase the momentum of the Palestinian effort to push for international recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Hence Abbas, Erekat, Qureia and other negotiators may have gained from the leaks. It is to be hoped that Palestinians will realize that Abbas and his team are far from selling out to Israel: they are trying to ensure that the Palestinian people will be able to live in freedom and dignity.
Netanyahu’s government is the most immediate loser. Nobody on the international scene believed their adage that the Palestinians are the peace refuseniks to begin with. If anybody had any doubts left that their position is both insincere and false, the leaks have made it clear beyond any doubt that their position is cheap propaganda.
Abbas and his team come across as eminently sensible; they have good understanding of Israel’s needs, particularly when it comes to security. Most importantly, they showed flexibility in what is by far the most pressing existential issue for Israel, the Palestinian right of return. The leaks show beyond any doubt that the slogan “There is no partner,” coined by Barak after the failure of the Camp David Summit of 2000 is a misrepresentation at best and a simple lie at worst.
The result is that Bibi’s government is now officially stamped as the peace refusenik. Its attempt to offer the Palestinians a state with temporary borders didn’t stand a chance to begin with – but now it proves to be a total no-brainer.
This didn’t prevent foreign minister Lieberman from saying immediately that the leaks prove that there is no chance for a final status agreement. This has further cemented Lieberman’s status as the Israeli Sarah Palin: Nobody in his right mind expects to hear anything from him other than the same, tired repetitions of right-wing clichés.
Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni come across as serious about a peace agreement. While Olmert’s claim that Abbas never replied to his generous offer turns out simply false, this does not diminish from the seriousness of his effort. Livni comes across as a fair but tough negotiator who has a good rapport with the Palestinian leadership. This may bode well for a, hopefully not distant, future, in which she will be in charge of the negotiations again.
From a historical perspective the ultimate loser from the Al Jazeera leaks is Ehud Barak: he now has a legitimate claim to have been one of the most destructive leaders Israel has ever had. He invented the slogan “there is no partner” that has shaped Israel’s collective consciousness for the last decade. His center-left credentials, that he has now officially forgone, gave this slogan enormous weight. To explain away his historic failure to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians, he has repeated this slogan time and again and turned himself into the fig-leaf for Israel’s most extreme right-wing government ever.
It is not yet clear whether the people of Israel will lose or gain. That depends on whether Israel’s citizens read the map as a whole, or whether they will let themselves be brainwashed by the propaganda of their current government.
The bottom line of the Al Jazeera leaks is very simple: the leadership of the PLO accepts the existence of the State of Israel. They have renounced the idea that they will return into pre-1967 Israel in large numbers. They are willing to accept that Palestine will be demilitarized, and for the foreseeable future NATO forces will take care of security. This means that Israel’s long-term survival is safeguarded – and this is mainstream Israelis’ overriding concern.
Hence Israelis are well-advised to listen to Bill Clinton, as good a friend as Israel has ever had. He strongly advises Israel to engage with the current Palestinian leadership and close a deal now. They should listen to one of Israel’s most astute political thinkers, Shlomo Avineri, who is certainly not suspect of being overly left-leaning or of being naïve about Israel’s security needs: Moving towards the two-state solution quickly is the only way to fulfill the Zionist dream of being a free nation in our land.
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