Leaked documents chart fading U.S. influence on Mideast talks

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 27, 2011 

JERUSALEM — For those who viewed American Mideast diplomacy warily and as a process that's going nowhere despite enormous effort, newly leaked documents offers new and bleak confirmation of the steady loss of U.S. influence on the talks, in parallel to growing disagreements between the United States and Israel.

The "Palestine Papers," documents on the peace talks compiled by the Palestinian Authority and released by the Al Jazeera satellite-TV network, show how the American negotiation team steadily lost its influence over the peace negotiations as shifting political administrations in the U.S. and Israel appeared increasingly at odds.

The trove of more than1,600 papers traces nearly 10 years' worth of diplomatic conversations with Palestinian officials. Most are drafts of "position papers," or maps to be used as background information. However, notes and transcripts of meetings between Palestinian officials and U.S. and Israeli negotiating teams provide a unique window into the mood behind the dialogue.

Palestinian negotiators and their support staff wrote the papers, so the perspective is their own, and they give little insight into the Israeli position as the negotiations unraveled.

American officials from two administrations are seen bullying and then cajoling the various parties to try to make progress, a key foreign-policy goal for successive U.S. presidents.

Today, the peace talks are on life support. The high-profile drive the Obama administration began the day it took office has run aground, and U.S. negotiators have shifted from directing the talks to an advisory role that appears completely beholden to the Israeli government, now led by conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nearly four months have passed since direct negotiations broke down, and U.S. mediators are shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to negotiate a compromise. The Palestinians say that until Israel freezes its settlement building they won't return to direct talks. Israel has refused repeatedly to stop its construction.

It's a very different world from that on July 20, 2008, when Israelis and Palestinians truly were negotiating. At the time, Israel had a centrist government led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and President George w. Bush was in the home stretch of his final term. In a meeting at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, Israeli and Palestinian officials were almost colluding behind the back of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reach their own compromises.

"We need to start acting like real partners. What we need to do secretly is to continue what we started on the refugees, etc. To make every effort to put things on paper," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, encouraging her to work outside of the U.S. administration.

Livni later supported Erekat's position on a security issue against Rice, explaining that they didn't want to reach piecemeal agreements under the time constraints of the U.S. government.

The mood at the meeting was one of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians while the U.S. led the discussion, keeping the various parties in line.

The mood began to change after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential elections. On March 24, 2009, shortly after Obama took office, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, said the new administration would drive the process forward.

"A Palestinian state is a cardinal interest of the U.S." he's quoted as saying. "Washington today is different from Washington yesterday."

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told Palestinian negotiators that "the time is ripe" to advance on a far-reaching initiative that would link the Israeli-Palestinian talks to a broader, regional peace accord.

But over the next six months, particularly after the Israelis elected a right-wing government, the mood darkened. By Sept. 16, 2009, a meeting between Erekat and American officials appears disjointed and stalled by distrust.

U.S. confidence was replaced by doubt, as deputy U.S. Mideast envoy David Hale said, "Regarding (Netanyahu's) willingness to enter into negotiations, I'm not a mind reader, but he has told us he is willing to enter meetings for the 'two state outcome.' "

By Oct. 1, 2009, the Palestinian negotiating team described a meeting with U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell in Washington as exasperating. Mitchell "expressed personal reservations about the situation: the attitude being contentious and full of mistrust."

Mitchell "said you have to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it — for that reason the best he can get (from Israel) is 'restraint.' " The Palestinians conclude that "Israel is acting in bad faith in the negotiations."

At the last meeting for which notes are available, Jan. 15, 2010, Hale delivered curt answers to Erekat's long, anguished rants.

"Our credibility on the ground has never been so low. Now it's about survival," Erekat told Hale at one point. Hale listened to Erekat, but patiently explained the Israeli position, saying clearly that he's unable to sway Netanyahu to compromise on his policy.

Israeli officials have refused to comment on any aspect of the "Palestine Papers," which portray Palestinian leaders as offering ever-broader concessions to Israel and Israel as unwilling to conclude a deal. One Israeli diplomat in Washington, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because the diplomat wasn't authorized to discuss the subject, said that while the mood of distrust was the same on the Israeli side, "the perspective was different."

"These papers reveal the unraveling of a process through Palestinian eyes. We have our own version of events, but hopefully we will have no leak," he said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.) ON THE WEB

Meeting summary: Shaul Mofaz and Nasr Yousef

Meeting summary: Saeb Erekat and George Mitchell

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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