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Will leaks end Mideast peace process?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
  • Al-Jazeera and the Guardian publishing purported leaked Palestinian documents
  • David Frum says they show Palestinians seeking major gains in return for concessions
  • He says deals Palestinians could get wouldn't be acceptable to their constituents
  • Frum says peace process survives only because it is being subsidized by outside world

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- It's being called a Palestinian WikiLeaks: a dump of 1,600 Palestinian Authority documents to Al-Jazeera and the British newspaper The Guardian.

The first releases reveal Palestinian negotiating concessions. Later releases will (the Guardian claims) detail the extent of Israeli-Palestinian Authority security cooperation.

In the words of a Guardian columnist today:

"Who will be most damaged by this extraordinary glimpse into the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Perhaps the first casualty will be Palestinian national pride, their collective sense of dignity in adversity badly wounded by the papers revealed today.

"Many on the Palestinian streets will recoil to read not just the concessions offered by their representatives -- starting with the yielding of those parts of East Jerusalem settled by Israeli Jews -- but the language in which those concessions were made."

More bluntly, Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, has suggested that January 23, 2011, be marked as the day "the two-state solution died."

Yet very arguably, the real news about the documents is that there is no news.

Former Palestinian Liberation Organization representative Karma Nabulsi writes on the Guardian's website, "had such deals eventually come to light, Palestinians would have rejected them comprehensively." Nabulsi is almost certainly correct, and that is the tragedy of the story.

When American officials think about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, they see a simple solution:

There is no deal that will give the Palestinians the things their leaders promise them.
--David Frum
Leaked Palestinian documents draw ire

Divide the country along the 1967 armistice lines. The Palestinians get the West Bank and Gaza. Israel gets Israel. Jerusalem is shared somehow. The Palestinian state is disarmed, so that Israel gets security. The international community is mobilized, so that the Palestinians get money.

That rough sketch leaves aside many important technical details -- water rights, for example -- but basically, it's the answer that every American president since Jimmy Carter has carried in his head.

This answer seems so compelling to Americans that you'll often hear U.S. experts on the issue say, "Everybody knows what the answer has to be."

"Everybody knows"? Not so fast.

The Palestinian leaks show the Palestinian Authority leadership trying to work their way to the answer that "everybody knows."

But the secrecy surrounding the documents -- and the reaction to the leak -- confirms the Israelis' worst fear: The Palestinian population does not, in fact, "know" what "everybody knows." And a Palestinian leadership that did "know" what "everybody knows" is now being reviled by its own population as traitors and sell-outs.

What, after all, are the big, shameful concessions contained in the documents? Where are the wounds to Palestinian national pride?

• The documents as reported demand Palestinian sovereignty over almost all of historic Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.

• The documents demand Palestinian control of lands equal in territory to the 1967 lands. Any border adjustment to reflect Israeli settlement activity would have to be balanced by an equivalent surrender of Israeli land to the new Palestinian state.

• Even after the Palestinians get their state on the other side of the 1967 line, the documents demand some kind of recognition of a Palestinian right to "return" to the Israeli side of the line. At one point, the documents suggest that the Israelis be required to resettle 100,000 Palestinians inside Israel.

If these ideas had been accepted as the basis of a final treaty between Israel and Palestine, every Middle East expert in Washington would have agreed that the Palestinians had done very, very, very well for themselves.

And yet, it never happened. It did not happen in very large part for exactly the reason now confessed by angry Palestinians themselves: because the actual demands of the Palestinian population are so much greater than any diplomat can gain.

Americans tend not to take very seriously the idea of a Palestinian "right of return": a right to move back to Israel even after the creation of a Palestinian state. Americans think, once you have your own state, how are you entitled to the other guy's state, too?

Yet it turns out that this claim that seems so outrageous to many Americans is indispensable to Palestinians and their supporters in the Middle East.

Likewise, Americans tend to assume that any deal should include Jewish sovereignty over the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem. Yet this too seems radically unacceptable to Palestinians and their supporters, who envision Palestinian control over almost all of historic and spiritual Jerusalem.

The leaked documents take large steps toward recognizing reality as Americans see it. Yet these steps had to remain a desperately guarded secret for exactly the reason we are seeing now: If a Palestinian leadership publicly admits what "everybody admits," that Palestinian leadership will be discredited and repudiated.

Yasser Arafat believed that his people would not accept peace on such terms, which is why Arafat refused to sign a similar peace in 2000: He said it would be signing his death warrant. That refusal triggered another war, the Second Intifada of 2000-03, which ended in disastrous Palestinian defeat.

Yet even after that loss, dissident politicians within the Palestinian leadership believe that their people still will not accept peace on the terms "everybody knows," which is why one of those politicians leaked these documents. That politician expects that disclosure will destroy the current Palestinian leadership and open the way for new leaders who will continue the long war for the old hopeless goals.

From the outside, this Palestinian behavior looks utterly irrational. You can't always get the deal you want. Still, some deal is better -- you'd think -- than no deal at all. And there is no deal that will give the Palestinians the things their leaders promise them. Palestinians will not be returning to Israel. Palestinians will not be getting the Western Wall. The suburbs built around Jerusalem will not be unbuilt. The deal on offer in 2020 will be worse than the deal on offer in 2010. Why not end the conflict today?

There are deep and long answers to that question. But there is also a short and simple answer, in which we are all implicated:

The conflict is not being ended because the outside world supports and subsidizes the conflict. Palestinians who have lived in Lebanon since 1949 are not Lebanese. Ditto Palestinians who have lived in Syria or Jordan. They receive international aid on the condition that they remain refugees forever. They command attention only to the extent that they do not relinquish their grievances. Everywhere else on the planet, the world community insists that wars must end. This one war is the war that the international community pays to continue.

And when -- at long last! -- some Palestinian leaders take the tentative steps toward peace on more realistic terms, they must do so in desperate secret. They know what would happen if the deal ever emerged into view. They'd lose their public. As has happened.

When people say that the Middle East peace process is all process, no peace, here is why: because it is only so long that the process reaches no result that the people in charge of the process on the Palestinian side can remain in charge.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.