It has been an American mantra throughout the many years of the peace process that both sides must take “risks for peace.” Those risks have taken different forms over time, but the most compelling risk for both Israelis and Palestinians has been a domestic political one: So long as the prospect of peace has remained a hazy dream, no one could object to it compellingly; but just begin to seriously consider the hard compromises necessarily involved, and it becomes clear to important constituencies on both sides that they will lose. To accept and politically manage those realities: That is the essence of “risks for peace.”
Given the current disproportion of grievances – and aggrieved constituencies – on their side, and the relative weakness of their bargaining position vis-a-vis Israel, it has always been true, though often willfully ignored by both the Israelis and the Americans, that the greatest burden of risk falls upon the Palestinian leadership. To reach their goals and to satisfy their people, they must have an agreement, and the right agreement, and soon; for as time goes on, their dispossession only increases. On the other hand, the status quo, particularly as illegally and unilaterally changed by them, has suited the Israelis very nicely, so long as bombs were not going off in their cafes and buses. From the Israeli point of view, at least in the short term, the major risk is in agreeing to any settlement at all.
Beginning with the signing of the Oslo accords, the political risks to the Palestinian leadership qualitatively changed, and not for the better. No longer would it be enough just to accept hard compromises and permanent concessions. Now, the Israelis, with full American support, demand that the Palestinians provide assurances of their ability to carry out an agreement by developing the institutions of a stable and competent state, despite having neither the legitimacy nor the independent resources necessary to do so.
The need for American support
The essential bargain for an Israeli-Arab peace, ever since passage of UN resolution 242, has been summed up in a three-word formulation: “land for peace.” However, where Palestinians are concerned, that formulation might better be understood as “land for Israeli security."
Thus, the one core component of the Palestinian state-building project since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, insisted upon by Israelis and Americans alike, has been for the Palestinians to establish full control over radical elements who might not abjure violence in pursuit of Palestinian aims, and to demonstrate the willingness and ability to identify, track down, and arrest or kill anyone involved in terrorism – even as very broadly defined to include those who, in other times and places, would be seen as engaged in legitimate armed resistance to oppression.
The impetus behind this insistence on Palestinian security was greatly expanded after the attacks of 9/11, when the US undertook to lead a grand international coalition against terrorism. Embracing their Israeli friends all the more tightly as allies and fellow-victims of the terrorist plague, the US demand for full Palestinian participation in a war on terror became correspondingly all the more insistent – and indeed a full precondition for any future American assistance in achieving a negotiated solution with Israel.
The post-Arafat Palestinian leadership therefore faced a dilemma. Convinced that there could be no agreement without American support, they were constrained to set up a pervasive and competent security regime and to make an “irrevocable” commitment against the use of violent resistance. This would mean turning on a considerable number of their own people, and alienating groups like Hamas, which enjoyed considerable popular support – indeed, far more than the Fatah-led leadership understood at the time.
Arafat, by contrast, had never permanently abjured violence. He continued to calibrate repression of the most violent elements among his people with the threat of armed resistance to Israel, and when he felt his political needs were being frustrated, he was willing to turn his Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades loose and to empty the jails, allowing nature to take its course. At the end he was again labeled a terrorist by the West; few would meet with him; and his final days were spent surrounded and alone, besieged in squalid defiance.
It should be remembered that the predominantly accepted narrative outside the occupied territories themselves was that Arafat had gone badly wrong, that he wasn’t sincere about peace, that if only he had abandoned his militant roots and acted in good faith to “end terror,” he might have succeeded in winning peace and justice for his people.
The Palestinian Authority's risks
And so Abu Mazen, the leadership, and the Palestinian peace process team made a choice.
They knew they could never obtain justice for their people by negotiating alone with Israel. Armed resistance, while appearing noble to some, could never succeed on its own and would permanently undermine international support. Instead, they would make a good-faith effort to meet the expectations of the “international community,” and hope against all hope that the Americans, once armed with the credible assurances which Palestinian actions would supply, might finally honor their own objective national interests to produce some measure of justice for the Palestinians, a chance for stability in the region, and a counter-narrative to the one propounded by al-Qaeda and its sympathizers in the Muslim world.
In doing so, they knew, they ran an enormous risk. For if their successful efforts to end terror failed to elicit a good-faith response from the Israelis, and if their conformity to international expectations and their cooperation in the US war on terror failed to convince the US to advocate effectively on their behalf, they could easily be branded as quislings, as trustees of the Israeli prison being inexorably constructed for their people.
Their good works, they knew, instead of being rewarded, might only make the status quo more comfortable for the Israelis, and incentivize greater Israeli obduracy.
I have spent many hours reading The Palestine Papers, the recent 10-year record of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The picture which clearly emerges from these pages of the Palestinian leadership and of the peace process negotiators themselves is that these are no quislings. For month after month, year after year, through endless, mind-numbing subcommittee meetings and plenary sessions, through interminable exchanges of letters and legal briefs, slogging from hotel meetings in Jerusalem to conferences in Egypt to “summit meetings” in Washington, the Palestinian negotiators tirelessly advocate on behalf of their people’s interests. In the face of Israeli condescension, obfuscation, and endless legalistic pettifogging they continually push back, insisting on application of relevant international law, despite the Israelis’ obvious contempt for their international obligations.
They persist in the face of the Americans’ blatant advocacy on behalf of the Israelis, refusing to cave in to consistent American pressure designed to force the Palestinians to compensate for Israeli inflexibility with ever-greater concessions of their own.
And time and again, we see them pleading for some small concession, some tangible evidence which will demonstrate to their people that they do, in fact, have a valuable stake in negotiations with their oppressors. Beyond the immediate exigencies of the negotiating points themselves, the Palestinians are at pains to point out to the Americans the underlying trends in the region, what is at stake for the US in this process, and the many clear convergences of Palestinian and American interests – all largely for naught.
Through it all, hanging like an incubus over the proceedings, is the palpable fear and insecurity of the Palestinians, who know that the longer the process moves on without any prospect of satisfaction for their people’s legitimate aspirations, buying more time for creeping annexation of their patrimony, the more they themselves are vulnerable to the charge that they are traitors, sacrificing the interests of their people to others more powerful than they.
It must be acknowledged, however, that there is another picture which emerges from the pages of The Palestine Papers.
They show that over time the Palestinian leadership has embraced the task of policing their people with more than warranted enthusiasm. They reveal that in committing themselves to a negotiating process, the Palestinian leadership has at times allowed the process to become a fetish, that it has at times agreed to refrain from advocating legitimately for their people’s rights in international forums, all to preserve the formal procedure which has become their raison d’etre.
There is much in The Palestine Papers that the PA’s detractors will seize upon, and often deservedly so. But the context in which these charges are being, and will be, made is set precisely by what the Palestinian leaders of the peace process have feared all along: That their failure to make any long-term, tangible gains for their people – despite their complicity in the process, despite their documented willingness to make far-reaching concessions, and despite having accepted American and Israeli support to repress their enemies and maintain themselves in power with at best threadbare legitimacy – all conspire to open them to charges of collaboration.
Again, the record from these documents shows that these are no collaborators. Even from this evidence, however, one cannot know what is in the heads of the Palestinian participants in the peace process: the Abu Mazens, the Saeb Erekats, the Abu Alas. At what point - if ever - might they have concluded that negotiation for a two-state solution was hopeless, and that continuation of the process would only serve to further compromise them? At what point – if ever – might they have tacitly decided to continue onward simply because there is nothing left for them, that this is their only way to hang on? I cannot pretend to know.
All of us approach this record burdened with our own backgrounds and experiences. I assess them as an American, and as a former government practitioner. As an American, the reaction I draw, frankly, is one of shame. My government has consistently followed the path of least resistance and of short-term political expediency, at the cost of decency, justice, and our clear, long-term interests. More pointedly, The Palestine Papers reveal us to have alternatively demanded and encouraged the Palestinian participants to take disproportionate risks for a negotiated settlement, and then to have refused to extend ourselves to help them achieve it, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. The Palestine Papers, in my view, further document an American legacy of ignominy in Palestine.
As a government practitioner, my reaction is one of empathy for the Palestinian fellow-practitioners whose record and whose impressions these pages reflect. I know well that to achieve anything in public affairs, one will always in the end be compromised to some extent. It is easy for the observers, for the armchair analysts, to criticize; but my sympathies lie with those who enter the ring, who fight and who risk failure for what they believe.
The Palestinian leadership will surely face criticism for what The Palestine Papers reveal. Some will be merited; some not. The overwhelming conclusion one draws from this record is that the process for a two-state solution is essentially over, that the history of the peace process is one of abject failure for all concerned. The Palestinian participants, having lost the most, will likely suffer most. But I can only come away with the passionately-held belief that these people deserved better.
Robert L. Grenier is Chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Mr. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks. Earlier, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.