When it comes to negotiations, the public is rarely privy to what happens during the countless meetings that precede political agreements and the much-publicized handshakes that seal them. But The Palestine Papers give us an inside look into the negotiating room, documenting playful banter, inappropriate jokes and bizarre rants in dozens of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators during the Annapolis process. The papers also reveal the complicated relationships between officials from both sides, while illuminating how they deal with roadblocks.
One such obstacle emerged during a contentious meeting on May 29, 2008 at the King David Hotel in West Jerusalem, when Israeli negotiators refused to discuss one of the conflict’s core issues, the status of Jerusalem. Samih Al-Abed, the Palestinian Authority’s map expert, tells Udi Dekel, a senior adviser to then-Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert: “We can’t go forward without Jerusalem on the table.”
After a futile back and forth about what can and cannot be discussed and what was and was not agreed to, Dekel says, “I do not have permission to discuss Jerusalem without knowing what arrangements will be in Jerusalem.” Al-Abed replies that his boss, senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, said the Palestinian side “cannot discuss Ma’ale Adumim,” the large and illegal Israeli settlement near Jerusalem.
“So let’s eat lunch together,” Dekel responds, “and let them [leaders] decide what to do.” Just before that, as the group reached an impasse in the discussion, Dekel suggests: “We should eat the food and enjoy ourselves.”
“I wish I were a refugee”
Rather than break early for lunch, on other occasions, negotiators tried to resolve disagreements by offering in earnest what, to some, might sound like outlandish suggestions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the source of one such proposal during a meeting on July 30, 2008 at the State Department. Rice kicked off the session by asking for a progress report on the points of agreement between the parties. After a quick update from Qurei and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the latter said that some major decisions had not been reached as far as how a future state of Palestine would look. “We need to know how it is going to work,” she said, “The Airport and Seaport.”
Addressing the Palestinians, Rice then dropped this bombshell: “[Y]our airspace is so small – put it in Jordan.” The Palestinian negotiators appeared shocked at the suggestion that they use a sovereign country’s airspace as their own. Just under Rice’s comment, the Palestinian note taker wrote in brackets: “Discussion on whether this is a joke or a real option. Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice clearly think it is realistic as an option.”
Sometimes there’s no doubt that the speaker is joking, but whether the joke is tasteful is another matter. During a highly-technical August 2008 meeting on refugees, negotiators parsed the language of two drafts (prepared by each side) of a potential refugee settlement. As the summit drew to a close, Livni’s legal adviser Tal Becker turned to his counterpart Ziyad Clot, and had this to say:
Becker: You know. No disrespect for the previous negotiation teams on refugees. But, Ziyad, I really think that you make a big difference on this file. There has never been in depth discussion on refugees in the past and my feeling is that the Palestinian refugees have never been so well-defended. To speak frankly, when I see this, I wish I were a refugee.”
Clot: I don’t think you meant what you just said.
Becker: I was joking. Sorry.
A few months earlier, on February 11, it was Livni who was in a joking mood. During an otherwise serious meeting about regional security, the subject of Jordan came up in a discussion about whether a future Palestinian state would be de-militarized. “What do you want from Jordan?” Qurei asked the Israelis. “A Palestinian state,” Livni responded. “This is a joke. I didn’t mean that.”
Exactly a week earlier, as the two sides discussed Hamas’ control of Gaza, there was this exchange:
Qurei: Do you remember Rabin’s saying: “I hope to sleep and wake up and see that the sea has swallowed Gaza.”
Livni: We’ve a saying too. When you want to curse somebody you tell him “Go to hell” but we shorten it and say “Go to Gaza.”
But the exchanges weren’t always awkward. On June 30, 2008, as Livni was gearing up to run in the Kadima party’s leadership election, Qurei said fawningly, “I would vote for you.” A few months before that Qurei had similarly sweet words for Rice, telling her, “You bring back life to the region when you come.”
Throughout the talks, some of the officials didn’t seem to lose sight of their own importance. Two months after the Annapolis summit that helped kick off the new round of negotiations, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, “Whoever will be able to reach an agreement to solve this conflict will be the most important figure in the region after Jesus Christ!”
But just three months later, Erekat seemed beaten down by the demands of duplicity that are often intrinsic to the negotiating process. Here’s what he told Israeli officials on May 11, 2008:
Erekat: I’m lying, I’ve been lying for the last weeks.
Yossi Gal: Between jogging?
Erekat: No, no, lying, lying. I was in Cairo, I was in Jordan, I was in America. Everybody is asking me what is going on Israel, what is Olmert going to do?
Gal: And you are telling everyone we are on the verge of success.
Erekat: And I always tell them this is an internal Israeli matter, a domestic Israeli matter and I keep lying. If somebody sneezed in Tel-Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho, and I have to lie. So that’s my last week- all lies.
Gal: As a professor of negotiations, you know that white lies are allowed now and then.
Erekat: I’m not complaining, I’m admitting – and sometimes I don’t feel like lying.
Gal: Well, around this table we won’t be lying.