Categorized | Palestine Affairs

The Palestine Papers As Theatre



Posted By: Sammi Ibrahem

Chair of West Midland PSC


I think the reason I find it difficult to get too exercised over the Palestine Papers is probably because the first exposure I had to them was through a breathless, dramatic video clip I saw from al-Jazeera English (entitled Creative Solutions, no long available at A.J.E. on-line) in which journalist Clayton Swisher dramatized in graphic detail the P.L.O.’s “unprecedented compromises” to Israel over the holy sites of East Jerusalem. Even while I was watching the video, the chasm between what was actually said in the documents, and what Clayton Swisher was claiming them to say, was so great that it left me looking at the later Palestine Papers coverage with enormous cynicism. 

As I said, the video report is no longer online, but you can still read the written version of Clayton Swisher’s report here.  And it’s dramatic stuff:

Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator of the Palestinian Authority (PA), had suggested unprecedented compromises on the division of Jerusalem and its holy sites, the Palestine Papers obtained by Al Jazeera show.  

Minutes of negotiations at the US State Department in Washington DC indicate that Erekat was willing to concede control over the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, to the oversight of an international committee.

Swisher goes on to cite the paragraph in the P.L.O.’s leaked documents that is the basis for his conclusions:

In a meeting on October 21, 2009 with George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, David Hale, Mitchell’s deputy, and Jonathan Schwartz, the then-US State Department legal adviser, Erekat told the Americans that they would need a “creative” solution for the division of the Old City.

Erekat: “It’s solved. You have the Clinton Parameters formula. For the Old City sovereignty for Palestine, except the Jewish quarter and part of the Armenian quarter … the Haram can be left to be discussed – there are creative ways, having a body or a committee, having undertakings for example not to dig [excavations under the Al Aqsa mosque]. The only thing I cannot do is convert to Zionism”.

So the P.L.O.’s “unprecedented compromises” on Jerusalem amount to this:

1. They think they framework for a solution already exists, in the form of “The Clinton Parameters”. (It’s solved. You have the Clinton Parameters formula).

The Clinton Parameters were set out by Bill Clinton in December 2000; and as far as Jerusalem is concerned their basic rule is that what is Arab will go to Palestine and what is Jewish will go to Israel, which is why ongoing settlement is so disruptive, but that’s another story.

2. The Old City – which lies in Occupied East Jerusalem – will be sovereign Palestinian territory. The two areas of heavy Jewish presence will be annexed to Israel. (For the Old City sovereignty for Palestine, except the Jewish quarter and part of the Armenian quarter).

3. The Haram/Temple Mount can be administered under an interim arrangement (the Haram can be left to be discussed) in which a supervisory body will prohibit inflammatory actions (like excavation) that could threaten each other’s sacred sites. (there are creative ways, having a body or a committee, having undertakings for example not to dig).

4. There is no mention here of Palestine renouncing its claim to sovereignty over the Haram.

5. This is as conciliatory as the P.L.O. can be on the holy sites, because to go beyond that would be to adopt the Zionist position that Israel can claim sovereignty over anything that was Jewish throughout history, such as Temple Mount, which the P.L.O. does not accept as having any legal basis. (“The only thing I cannot do is convert to Zionism“).

And that’s it. That is what Clayton Swisher called “unprecedented compromises”. And that’s what set off my bullsh*t detector. Because if you are interested in the history of I-P relations, and follow the course of negotiations between the two parties – which I admit I do with a rather more than healthy interest simply because I used to be in a similar line of work (albeit it in a humble worker bee capacity) and the ugly sausage-making process still holds an interest for me – then you already know very well that Clayton Swisher’s breathless revelations are no such thing. In fact, the first thing I thought on hearing about these stunning “unprecedented compromises”  was: “Welcome back to Taba, 2001”. 

The Egyptian resort of Taba was the scene of the last I-P negotiations of the Ehud Barak premiership, which are widely regarded as representing the closest Israelis and Palestinians have come to a negotiated agreement.  We know the terms of reference the two sides were operating under at Taba, and the amount of progress they made on the core issues, because the E.U.’s envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Angel Moratinos – with the cooperation of both side’s negotiators – wrote down the state of play as those talks were winding down in January 2001.

“The Moratinos Non-Paper” was widely circulated after it was first published in February 2002.  I am reproducing the following brief extracts from the document archive, and from pp351-354 of my copy of Charles Enderlin’s bestseller, Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002, simply because it happens to be sitting on my bookshelf at arm’s length from me as I write this.

This is what the Moratinos non-paper said about I-P negotiations concerning Jerusalem in 2001 (emphasis mine):

2. Jerusalem
2.1 Sovereignty

Both sides accepted in principle the Clinton suggestion of having a Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods and an Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods. The Palestinian side affirmed that it was ready to discuss Israeli request to have sovereignty over those Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem that were constructed after 1967, but not Jebal Abu Ghneim and Ras al-Amud. The Palestinian side rejected Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the Jerusalem Metropolitan Area, namely of Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev.  

The Palestinian side understood that Israel was ready to accept Palestinian sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, including part of Jerusalem’s Old City. The Israeli side understood that the Palestinians were ready to accept Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and part of the Armenian Quarter.

2.5 Holy Sites: Western Wall and the Wailing Wall
Both parties have accepted the principle of respective control over each side’s respective holy sites (religious control and management). According to this principle, Israel’s sovereignty over the Western Wall would be recognized although there remained a dispute regarding the delineation of the area covered by the Western Wall and especially the link to what is referred to in Clinton’s ideas as “the space sacred to Judaism of which it is a part”.

The Palestinian side acknowledged that Israel has requested to establish an affiliation to the holy parts of the Western Wall, but maintained that the question of the Wailing Wall and/or Western Wall has not been resolved.

2.6 Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount
Both sides agreed that the question of Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount has not been resolved. However, both sides were close to accepting Clinton’s ideas regarding Palestinian sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif not withstanding Palestinian and Israeli reservations…

An informal suggestion was raised that for an agreed period such as three years, Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount would be under international sovereignty of the P5 (the five permanent members of the Security Council] plus Morocco (or other Islamic presence), whereby the Palestinians would be the “Guardian/Custodians” during this period. At the end of this period, either the parties would agree on a new solution or agree to extend the existing arrangement. In the absence of an agreement, the parties would return to implement the Clinton formulation. Neither party accepted or rejected the suggestion.

So ten years ago, at Taba, Israeli and Palestinian sides were operating under the following groundrules for negotiations on Jerusalem:

1. The basis for a negotiated agreement on Jerusalem will be the Clinton Parameters.

2. Arab parts of Jerusalem will be sovereign Palestinian territory, Jewish ones will be Israeli.  This includes the Old City in Occupied East Jerusalem, where the Jewish Quarter and part of the Armenian Quarter would go to Israel.

3. Although no final agreement was reached, talks were proceeding on the basis that sovereignty over the holy sites would also be based on ‘what is Jewish [ie the Wailing Wall] goes to Israel, what is Arab [i.e. the Haram] goes to Palestine’. However, both sides were also willing to consider the alternative possibility of an interim (but rolling), international arrangement, to control the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

Now, compare those positions of January 2001 with the “unprecedented compromises” allegedly revealed in al-Jazeera’s presentation of the Palestine Papers. The “unprecedented compromises” are actually a reiteration of the same parameters that have governed I-P negotations on Jerusalem since at least Taba. And as the parameters are widely known to anyone with an interest in I-P negotiations and access to the internet – you can read the entire Moratinos non-paper here at Ha’aretz, for example, where it has been available on line since February 2002 – there is no way that al-Jazeera can genuinely believe it is unveiling anything “unprecedented”. 

What is remarkable about the Palestinian offer on East Jerusalem is not its non-existent unprecedented-ness, but how very precedented it all is. Perhaps that’s because no-one in the Palestinian leadership is comfortable going beyond the limits of what was permissable for discussion in Arafat’s day, or perhaps it is simply the case that when you’re trying to establish two states on the 1967 borders with mutually-acceptable land swaps, there just aren’t that many different ways to configure it. Whatever the reason, the outlines of the Jerusalem discussion described in the Palestine Papers are the same outlines as have been common knowledge for 10 years. To present them as “unprecedented concessions” is a gross distortion and, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the subject matter, deliberately inflammatory against the P.L.O.

But there’s more!!!!, as Billy Mays would say. And this is where we get to the really interesting aspect of al-Jazeera’s coverage of this issue.

These not-at-all-unprecedented parameters for a negotiated deal on Jerusalem actually go back earlier than Taba. Jerusalem had been a big sticking point at the Camp David Summit of July 2000, but major progress was made in establishing the basis for sharing the city during bilateral I-P meetings at the King David Hotel during the fall of 2000. Furthermore, in December 2000, while the I-P negotiators were in Washington D.C. for U.S.-mediated talks at Bolling A.F.B., President Clinton presented the delegations with the proposed guidelines for a negotiated settlement which would become known as the Clinton Parameters. 

I’m extracting these details about the Clinton Parameters from another of the books on my shelf, The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story About The Collapse Of The Middle East Peace Process. The extract’s a bit long, but bear with me; you’ll love where this leads:

p 395 

A new factor was introduced on December 9 (2000), when Barak resigned as Prime Minister. He feared that he would be defeated by Netanyahu in general elections scheduled for May, and that he had better chances going to special elections earlier, on February 6, against Sharon. And if he could propose a peace referendum, it would only increase his prospects.

Clinton also realized time was running out; now that the American elections were over, the coast was clear to restart intensive negotiations (Hillary had won her Senate race handily and, in a controversial December 12 ruling, the Supreme Court handed the Presidential election to George W. Bush). The parties were invited to Washington’s Bolling Air Force Base in late December in an attempt to pick up from where talks had left off in the days before the intifada. The most significant development, aside from having American reengagement, was a concession proposed by Shlomo Ben Ami, which he admits was made “without consulting anyone”. According to Ben Ami, it was for Palestinians to have “sovereignty over the Temple Mount” so long as they “would undertake not to conduct excavations there because the place was sacred to the Jews.” But Ben Ami insisted that the Palestinians make a statement proclaiming that “the site is sacred to the Jews”. But the Palestinians balked, fearing that such recognition could backfire if the Israelis withdrew the offer – a strong possibility, considering that Barak hadn’t authorized it and that other members of the Israeli delegation were angry with Ben Ami for making the offer without Barak’s authorization; at least one negotiator, Israel Hasson, threatened to resign.

The bickering paused when the parties were summoned to the White House on the bitterly cold morning of December 23, a momentous occasion they had all been expecting. The White House was at the peak of its Christmastime splendor, as it would be the last holiday Clinton would spend there as president. The anxious delegations listened intently as Clinton began his historic


remarks.  Even though he was leaving office, Clinton was still skittish about offering a written proposal. Apparently not having learned his lesson from Camp David’s sloppy procedures, he once again decided to convey his ideas orally, reading at dictation speed. The president began with some qualifiers:

We know you’re working hard. But the rate you’re going, you won’t make it. What I’m going to give you is not a U.S. proposal, but rather our idea of what will be needed on core issues to reach an agreement. If either side refuses to accept these parameters, they’re off the table.  We can talk about refinements, but these ideas are not to be negotiated. I would like answers from your leaders in four days.

Next Clinton read his ideas, later referred to as the “Clinton parameters”: On territory, the Palestinian state would control 94-96 percent of the West Bank, with a 1-3 percent swap from Israel proper (as at Camp David, the working assumption by all parties remained that all of Gaza would be returned to the Palestinians). On security, Israel would be allowed several warning stations in the Jordan Valley, and the withdrawal would be carried out over a thirty-six month period, with an international force monitoring implementation.  On Jerusalem, “Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli. This would apply to the Old City as well”. Regarding the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Clinton offered two alternatives: either Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall “and the sacred space to Judaism [Holy of Holies] of which it is a part”; or “Palestinian shared sovereignty over the Haram and Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall and shared functional sovereignty over the issue of excavation under the Haram…”. Regarding refugees and the right of return, “the guiding principle should be that the Palestinian state will be the focal point for Palestinians who choose to return to the area without ruling out that Israel will accept some of these refugees”. Clinton closed his remarks by saying, “These are my ideas. If they are not accepted, they are not just off the table; they also go with me, when I leave office.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians were perplexed with the many ambiguities in Clinton’s presentation, which, because Clinton insisted they “could not be negotiated”, only “refined”, meant they would have to clarify differing interpretations on their own.

On Jerusalem alone, there was the introduction of a new term, “Holy of Holies”, which, according to Dr. Moshe Amirav of Haifa University, whom Barak had appointed after Camp David to advise him on Jerusalem, was a demand made by Barak that no other Zionist leader – including David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin – had ever insisted on. According to Amirav, “Holy of Holies” refers to an area of “four square meters which the High Priest would enter on Yom Kippur.” But according to Amirav, Barak applied this term to “the entire plaza, including the mosques.” Another potential deal killer for Palestinians was the proposal to have “shared functional sovereignty” over the issue of excavation under the Haram al-Sharif mosques, which only required “that mutual consent would be requested” prior to any digging.

Both sides wanted clarifications. Eventually both would accept the parameters, but both would express reservations.

(emphasis mine)

(The book also describes in its final chapters how far I-P negotiators went into the practical aspects of how to share Jerusalem; e.g. walking the streets of historic Jerusalem – especially the Armenian Quarter – in the period between Camp David and Taba, to gauge how sharing the Old City would work in practice, with an emphasis on keeping the city as open and livable as possible). 

So, thanks to The Truth About Camp David, we can trace the beginnings of what Clayton Swisher today calls the P.L.O.’s “unprecedented compromises” on Jerusalem right back to December 2000, when Israelis and Palestinians accepted the Clinton Parameters as the basis for their continuing negotiations on an I-P peace treaty.

The Truth About Camp David is an interesting book. At a time when Israel and the U.S. had successfully planted the meme that “we offered them everything but they refused” into U.S. discourse about the failure of the peace process, it was a convincing and comprehensive challenge to the prevailing myth. Through interviews with the major players, it revealed the dysfunctional U.S. diplomacy that lay behind the failure of both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks, the decidedly un-generous offer of disconnected cantons that the Palestinians were offered as a state at Camp David, and the extent to which trust between the Palestinians and the U.S. “mediator” was undermined by the U.S. consistently acting as Israel’s agent in the talks. It also described how much of the serious progress in I-P negotiations was made bilaterally after the delegations returned home from Camp David, and how both sides – including the allegedly rejectionist Arafat – worked within the parameters laid down by Bill Clinton, even on the most sensitive issue of Jerusalem and its holy sites. In short, it traces back through the last 11 years the origins and implementation of the negotiating scenario that Clayton Swisher and al-Jazeera claim to be an “unprecedented compromise” when the Palestinian side refers to it in 2009.

And the most fascinating thing of all about The Truth About Camp David is that it was written by … Clayton Swisher, former U.S. federal investigator, former director of public events at the Palestine Center in Washington D.C., and current journalist at al-Jazeera English! That would be the same Clayton Swisher who is now reporting breathlessly about what huge compromises the P.L.O. is making over the issue of Jerusalem, despite the fact that the “unprecendented compromises” he describes are the same Clinton-inspired parameters for I-P negotiations that Clayton Swisher was himself instrumental in introducing years ago to an English-speaking readership. Isn’t that absurd?

I have no idea how to explain that. Either:

1. Clayton Swisher has suffered ten years’ worth of memory loss, and has genuinely forgotten that he already reported years ago on the “unprecedented compromises” he is suddenly “discovering” now;

2. This is just how T.V. news is. Everyone would pull this sort of stunt to manufacture a story, including A.J.E.;

3. There is some incredibly subtle 11-dimensional chess move going on in the leaking and presentation of the Palestine Papers that mere mortals like me can’t hope to follow.

I have no idea who exactly is doing what to whom in the leaking of the N.S.U. papers to al-Jazeera, but I do know when I am being taken for a fool. And when I see Clayton Swisher on A.J.E. dramatically describing unprecedented Palestinian compromises, which I recognize as the same parameters for I-P negotiations that were laid down over 10 years ago, and reported to us at the time by the same Clayton Swisher, I know I’m being taken for a fool.

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