by Iqbal Siddiqui (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 12, Safar, 1432)
The Palestinian issue has been virtually stalemated since before Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008–2009, with Hamas, the most popular and legitimate Palestinian leadership bottled up in the besieged and densely populated Gaza, and the West Bank under the increasingly repressive rule of Mahmood Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA).
The Palestinian issue has been virtually stalemated since before Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008–2009, with Hamas, the most popular and legitimate Palestinian leadership bottled up in the besieged and densely populated Gaza, and the West Bank under the increasingly repressive rule of Mahmood Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA). The result has been that effective political opposition to Israel has been largely non-existent, while Israel has been able to continue its policy of gradually changing the realities on the ground in occupied Palestine in its favour, in order to strengthen its grip pending any future attempt to legitimise its control through a settlement imposed on the Palestinians.
Commentators have also generally agreed that there was no sign of how this stalemate could be broken, barring some unforeseeable development that radically shifted the balance of power in Palestine. Some hope that the publication by al-Jazeera news channel last month of leaked documents showing the reality of the PA’s role in negotiations with Israel and the US could prove to be that unexpected, game-changing factor. That depends, however, on what precisely the documents reveal, and how Palestinians respond to them. (As Crescent goes to press, only some of the documents have been published.)
The publication of the first documents on January 23, by al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain, was greeted by very mixed reactions from Palestinians and their supporters around the world. The PA immediately launched a propaganda campaign to discredit the leaks, variously describing them as misrepresentations of the real documents or as forgeries designed to serve the interests of the Palestinians’ enemies. Hamas leaders and other critics of the PA welcomed the documents as supporting their views on the role of Abbas and the PA. Among other Palestinians, reactions varied from shock at some of the details of the revelations (see box), to a sense of resignation based on the view that the documents only confirm what many already suspected or believed.
Launching the publication of the leaks on January 23, al-Jazeera revealed that they consisted of 1,684 documents of various kinds, mainly on negotiations between the PA, Israel and the US regarding the so-called “peace process”. The documents, mainly taken from diplomatic correspondence written by Palestinian officials, reportedly include 275 sets of meeting minutes; 690 internal e-mails; 153 reports and studies; 134 sets of talking points and prep notes for meetings; 64 draft agreements; 54 maps, charts and graphs; and 51 “non-papers.” The oldest of the documents dates back to 1999; the most recent to late 2010. The bulk of the documents apparently date from 2008–2009. All are in English, the language in which international negotiations and the associated paperwork take place.
Although the documents were obtained by al-Jazeera, their publication was shared with the Guardian newspaper in Britain, apparently in order to ensure that they reached a wider international audience. Both news organizations claim to have independently verified the documents.
For many familiar with the Palestinian issue and developments in Palestine in recent years, there is little radically surprising in the leaks. For the most part, they provide confirmation of what many observers had already concluded based on their analysis of the evidence, statements and behaviour of various parties. The overwhelming sense that emerges is of a weak and desperate PA leadership trying to satisfy demanding and contemptuous American and Israeli officials, making concession after concession, and getting nothing in return.
Equally evident from the documents is the fact that the Israelis have no interest in reaching an agreement; at one point in 2007, the then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni explicitly confirms that “the Israeli policy is to take more and more land day after day [so that] at the end of the day we will say that it is impossible, we already have the land, we cannot create the [Palestinian] state.”
Alongside the leaked Palestinian documents published by al-Jazeera, American diplomatic papers recently published on the WikiLeaks website also reveal information about relations between the PA and Israel. In January 2010, for example, Yuval Diskin, the head of Shabak, Israel’s security service, is quoted by the US ambassador to Israel as saying that his agency has “friendly, professional and honest” dealings with PA counterparts.
Whatever the source of the leaks, it is clear that the total number of documents leaked is only a small proportion of the actual volume of such documents that must have been generated over 10 years of such complex international dealings. How the leaked documents have been selected, how representative they are, and the agendas of those who leaked them are all open questions. Nonetheless, the overall thrust of the revelations is clear, and the fact that they confirm what many observers had already concluded tends to suggest that the conclusions most readers are drawing from them are correct.
However, whether the leaks will have the impact on Palestinian politics, and the position of the PA, that some observers have suggested remains to be seen. (The full texts of the leaked Palestinian documents are available on al-Jazeera website, http://bit.ly/gHepab).
Key highlights of the Palestinian papers
One of the key revelations in the leaked documents has been the extent to which PA negotiators were willing to concede key Palestinian demands despite promising Palestinians that they were not negotiable, and despite not receiving anything in return from the Israelis. At a trilateral meeting in June 2008, for example, Ahmed Qurei, then the PA prime minister, and Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, promised Israel “the biggest Jerusalem you have ever had”, proposing that “Israel annexes all settlements in Jerusalem except Jabal Abu Ghneim (Har Homa).” What is more, this offer was made despite the fact that Israel had refused even to discuss the status of Jerusalem at the meeting, let alone offer the Palestinians anything in return for this.
Another fundamental Palestinian demand conceded by the PA leadership is the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine. In talks in 2008 and 2009, Erekat accepted that Israel need accept the return of only 10,000 of the estimated 5 million refugees, at a rate of 1,000 a year for 10 years. He also accepted that these returning refugees need not be given the right to vote in Israel. The Israeli response was to suggest that this demand could be met by the refugees being allowed to settle in the new Palestinian state rather than in Israel. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile had an alternative solution for the refugees: the creation of homelands for them in remote and uninhabited areas of Chile and Argentina.
Another Israeli demand that the PA was willing to consider was the idea that, in return for Israel’s abandonment of some settlements, Palestinians living in Israel be forced to move to the West Bank. In other words, the PA negotiators were discussing the dispossession of even more Palestinians, those who managed to remain in Israel after 1948.
The papers also reveal details of the PA’s cooperation with Israel and its allies in order to try to destroy Hamas. They reveal that the PA’s campaign against Hamas in the West Bank was based on plans drawn up by the British intelligence agency MI5, working in cooperation with the CIA and Israel. They also show how PA officials encouraged Israel to tighten their siege of Gaza both before and after the 2008–2009 war, despite the plight of Palestinians there. They also show that the PA regime was informed in advance of the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008.