Does Everybody Know What Everybody Knows?

The following piece was originally published at The Palestine Note

I wrote yesterday about a particular instance where I felt the Guardian (UK) had distorted and enflamed the content of one of the increasingly notorious Palestine Papers. Today, fellow blogger Bernard Avishai takes it a step further.

Avishai calls the Guardian’s coverage “outrageous” and openly wonders if “…the Guardian actually like(s) this conflict?” I think Bernie is somewhat overstating his case, but his essential point is valid.

Avishai points out that “Any prospective agreement would be a compromise,” and he’s right. For the most part, the really explosive stuff in the Palestine Papers, at least in terms of the Palestinian Authority, is the stuff of pragmatism and compromise.

Ceding Jewish areas in East Jerusalem? Perfectly consistent with the Clinton Parameters. Only a token return of refugees? This has long been understood to be at the very heart of the two-state solution, and precisely the reason so many Right of Return activists are also one-staters. Land swaps to minimize the number of settlers Israel would have to move? Again, this is a very familiar part of the discourse.

Ron Kampeas at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency sees something different in the Papers. As he puts it, “If anything, the documents shatter the illusion that there is a bottom-line consensus about certain settlements being annexed to Israel in a final-status agreement. Many groups refer to these as the “everybody knows” settlements, such as Maaleh Edumim and Efrat, both near Jerusalem.”

I think Kampeas comes very close to the mark as to the real significance of the Palestine Papers. Sure, those of us on the left see in it the confirmation of American bias toward Israel and Israeli reluctance to compromise.  But then why is it that the Americans and Israelis seem not in the least concerned about the revelations, while the PA is in a panic?

See, it’s actually not, as Avishai might be implying, sensationalistic reporting by the Guardian or Al Jazeera. It’s Kampeas’ “everybody knows” items.

The peace process has proceeded, from the very beginning, with an ever-widening disconnect from the Palestinian people. It’s a tone that was set when the Oslo Accords were first being worked out, and Yasir Arafat worked to ensure that the key negotiators were all his people who had shared his exile in Tunisia. The local leadership from the Palestinian Territories (which, ironically, included Saeb Erekat at the time) was relegated to secondary status at best.

And so it has continued for all of these years. Among the Palestinian people there simply hasn’t been the open, public discourse that has happened in Israel. Arafat, in the years before his death, was at least much more connected to the people than his successors. This is why he rejected the Camp David offer and gave only a lukewarm response to the Clinton Parameters. He was unable to counter-offer because, while he knew that was before him was not acceptable to the people, he really didn’t know what would be. He needed to facilitate a public discussion on the “tough compromises” that would be needed, but he feared doing this and never did so before his death.

This has gotten much worse under Mahmoud Abbas, because Arafat was really alone among the “Tunis” crowd, as they were sometimes called, in having any real understanding of the feeling of the Palestinian street. And, despite the fact that the Israelis cynically capitalized on this very weakness, one has to acknowledge that they were aware that it was there and it was thus not unreasonable for them to question the Palestinian leadership’s ability to deliver on the sorts of deals that were under discussion.

When a Palestinian says she or he supports a two-state solution, what does that mean? Does that person think it ok for Israel to keep Gilo, the settlement outside of Jerusalem and right near Bethlehem? Do they accept land swaps at all? Do they accept only a token return of refugees, and that the Right of Return, which is widely viewed as an individual right, be essentially forfeited? Do they accept sharing Jerusalem and a compromise on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount? Does the majority of Palestinians still support a two-state solution at all?

We can look at polls, but if the 2006 Palestinian elections proved anything it is that polls of Palestinians are far from definitive. I can say from personal experience that I’ve heard all sorts of answers to the questions above, from Palestinians in the Territories and the Diaspora, from the relatively well-to-do and the poorest refugees, from the religious and the secular, from those in relative positions of power and the common worker.

The point is, the Palestinian negotiators are working within what they see as the “pragmatic framework.” That means getting whatever they can from the Israelis and Americans within the bounds of what the Arab League will support. In more recent years they’ve also had to balance what Hamas might be able to capitalize on to some degree.

But some of these things that “everybody knows” have always seemed questionable to me and many others who approach this question with a more critical eye. Because it was always “everybody knows” that:

  • Israel will keep Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim
  • The Palestinians will accept a token return of refugees
  • Palestinians will accept a de-militarized state with Israeli rights to their airspace
  • Palestinians will accept some Jordanian influence over their politics as well as agree to exclude Hamas and similar groups from the political process
  • Palestinians may not like these things, but they can be made to accept them.

Some of these are more common than others, but I’ve heard them all and more.

Fundamentally, this is what is missing and what puts the PA in so much more peril because of the revelations in the Papers. It is the Palestinian discussion, the clear and apparent discourse that gets expressed through various channels: political debate and elections, market trends, a free media. Sure, there are vocal activists in Palestine and in the Palestinian diaspora, but it is no more than a cacophony of ideas and opinions. It does not guide the political leaders.

And, to be sure, political leaders everywhere, certainly including Israel and the United States, manipulate that public opinion in an attempt to garner support for their preferred course. But still, Ariel Sharon knew he had enough public support to pull out of Gaza, and the right failed to bring him down in response. Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and, yes, Yitzhak Rabin all also knew they had to get support for their policies as well. They could not simply act on their personal judgments.

That is what the Palestine Papers have exposed more than anything else. Bernie Avishai is correct when he says the Guardian has been overly bombastic, but they’re sensationalizing something real. And that something is that Palestinians are finally finding ways to weigh in on what “everybody knows.” This is a desperately needed process if there is ever to be an agreement, on whatever parameters, that will be accepted by both Israelis and Palestinians. Right now, we only have the say-so of the former and that cannot possibly lead to resolution.