The Palestine Papers reveal the extent to which the Obama administration orchestrated this 2009 handshake [EPA]
Jerusalem – It was all smiles in late September 2009, when Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, shook hands at the United Nations. Barack Obama, the US president, brought the men together for a trilateral meeting that he hailed as a chance to revive stalled talks between the two sides, an opportunity to "move forward".
In reality, there was little reason for optimism, and Obama knew it: Less than a week before the handshake, Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority (PA), told a senior Obama adviser that a trilateral meeting would be ruinous for the PA. "It’s like having a gun to my head, damned if you do and damned if you don’t," Erekat told David Hale.
Erekat also warned that Obama’s failure to secure a complete settlement freeze from the Israeli government would damage the credibility of the young administration, a suggestion Hale abruptly dismissed.
Hale: We cannot force a sovereign government. We can use persuasion and negotiations and shared interests.
Erekat: Of course you could if you wanted. How do you think this will reflect on the credibility of the US, if you can’t get this done?
Hale: We make the call on our own credibility.
Sixteen months later, though, Erekat’s concerns seem well-founded: talks have stalled, settlements continue to expand, and the optimism that Obama created with his campaign rhetoric and his Cairo speech has largely evaporated.
The Palestine Papers portray an Obama administration deeply concerned with the "optics" of the peace process. The White House leaned heavily on Palestinian negotiators to restart talks, without resolving any of the substantive concerns – particularly settlement growth – raised by the PA. And Obama refused to honour one of the Bush administration’s key promises to the Palestinians, a decision that Erekat said deeply hurt the PA’s credibility.
Talks at all costs
Abbas told Obama early in the latter’s presidency that Israeli-Palestinian talks would not be credible without a complete Israeli settlement freeze. Erekat e-mailed the PA’s Negotiation Support Unit in June 2009 and summarised a meeting in Washington between the two leaders:
“Are you serious about the two-state solution?” Abbas asked, according to Erekat. “If you are, I cannot comprehend that you would allow a single settlement housing unit to be built in the West Bank… you have the choice. You can take the cost free road, applying double standards, which would shoot me and other moderates in the head and make this Bin Laden’s region. Or say we are not against Israel but against Israel’s actions. If you cannot make Israel stop settlements and resume permanent status negotiations, who can?”
Obama chose the first option: Netanyahu rejected the US president’s request for a complete settlement freeze, agreeing only to suspend new construction in the West Bank (thousands of new tenders were issued in East Jerusalem during the freeze period). But the White House accepted the offer, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, would later praise Israel for its "unprecedented” concession".
Dennis Ross, the State Department’s unabashedly pro-Israel envoy, tried to put a positive spin on Netanyahu’s offer during that September 2009 meeting in Jericho attended by Hale and Erekat.
Ross: The package includes no new tenders, no new confiscation…
Erekat: I’m not coming from Mars! 40% of the West Bank is already confiscated. They can keep building for years without new tenders.
And in an October 1, 2009 meeting, Mitchell downplayed the importance of Jerusalem, telling Erekat to take comfort in Israel’s offer of "restraint". "With negotiations, we will have more leverage, and there will be less settlement activity [in East Jerusalem]," Mitchell said, according to an NSU summary of the meeting.
The facts on the ground, however, show that Mitchell’s confidence was misplaced: During the 10-month West Bank freeze, the Jerusalem municipality approved, among other projects, 1,600 housing tenders in Ramat Shlomo; 377 in Neve Yaakov; 230 in Pisgat Ze’ev; 117 in Har Homa; and 20 in Sheikh Jarrah.
(Settlers in the West Bank quickly made up for lost time, too: They started 1,629 new houses in six weeks after the freeze ended, nearly as many as they started in all of 2009, according to the Israeli group Peace Now.)
Relaunch, don’t resume
Obama’s capitulation on settlements wasn’t the only complaint from Palestinian negotiators, either.
The Palestine Papers reveal that, in the months after the Annapolis conference, Condoleezza Rice, the then-US secretary of state, explicitly endorsed using 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations. On July 16, 2008, she tells Erekat and Ahmed Qurei that any proposed land swaps should use 1967 as a reference.
Rice: I believe that the assumptions should be, the US will [secure this]. Any swaps will be in reference to the area occupied in 1967. When they [the Israelis] talk about 7.3 [per cent] they are talking about this.
Two weeks later, her language is even clearer: "1967 as a baseline," Rice told Erekat and Qurei.
Palestinian negotiators viewed that declaration as a significant victory – the first time a senior US official had endorsed such a baseline.
But it would prove to be a short-lived victory. In early October 2009, Erekat met in Washington with George Mitchell, Obama’s Middle East envoy. Erekat asked about the "terms of reference", the framework that would guide negotiations, and reminded Mitchell of Rice's promise. “This is a new administration that should state what others have tacitly agreed in the past,” Erekat told Mitchell on October 1. But Mitchell refused, saying that the US "would not agree to any mention of ’67 whatsoever” in order to avoid “difficulties with the Israelis".
The next day, Mitchell warned Erekat not to press the issue any further:
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.
[US state department legal adviser Jonathan] 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.
This sense of moving backwards was a common Palestinian complaint during meetings with Obama officials. In September 2009, Erekat asked Hale why the administration opted to "relaunch" rather than "resume" negotiations. Hale, like Mitchell, described past agreements with the US as non-binding:
Hale: We prefer "relaunch" since there was no agreement – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
Erekat: There is a detailed record of our negotiations. The US administration kept it – it is perhaps our only achievement with the Bush administration. And so much for Obama and rapprochement… there is not a new word! Give me something at least to save face!
Hale: There is a lot of new stuff.
Erekat’s frustrations reached a peak in late October 2009, when he met at the White House with then-national security adviser James Jones. Erekat told Jones that Netanyahu had already outmaneuvered the Obama administration:
Erekat: I am planning to go on Israeli channel 10 to say one thing: congratulations Mr. Netanyahu. You defeated President Obama. You defeated Abu Mazen… if it’s my word against theirs in your Congress and your Senate, I know I do not stand a chance.
Obama is today said to be "seeking new ideas" on the peace process from two task forces led by former White House officials. But the question of borders – which The Palestine Papers demonstrate was the key issue during negotiations in 2009 – remains unresolved.