Mahmoud Abbas 311.
(photo credit: MUHAMMED MUHEISEN ( AP))
Despite his frequent threats to quit, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas doesn’t want to be tossed onto history’s garbage heap with the rulers of
Egypt and Tunisia, so he decided over the weekend to shuffle his cabinet and
schedule long-postponed elections.
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Along the way, he also lost his chief
peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, a 20-year veteran of verbal sparring with the
Israelis. It may not seem important, since peace talks are in the deep freeze
while both sides refuse to talk unless the other changes its attitude toward
But settlements are just a sideshow. The real issue
is whether Israel and the Palestinians really want to make peace, or to avoid it
by finding excuses to blame the other side for its absence. In the meantime,
neither side seems to grasp the importance of the changes sweeping across the
Erekat’s resignation offers unintended insights into why peace
remains so elusive. He took responsibility for the publication of 1,684
documents leaked to Al Jazeera by members of his Negotiations Support Unit
(NSU), which advises Palestinian negotiators. Three foreign staffers believed
responsible have since left the West Bank, and NSU has been
The papers reveal details of more than 10 years of secret
talks. Erekat claimed they were stolen and “deliberately” tampered with, and
that their contents have been taken out of context as part of a conspiracy by Al
Jazeera and Israel – talk about your odd couple – to discredit the peace process
and “bring down” the Abbas government.
But Erekat’s problem was much
greater than that: The documents were authentic. The real message of the
Palestinian Papers was not how much the PA leadership was willing to compromise,
but how it misled its own people.
While PA leaders were vowing steadfast
support for the full ‘right’ of return for refugees, the removal of all
settlements, no compromise on borders, full return of all land lost in 1967
including all of east Jerusalem and the Old City, they were saying something
very different to their Israeli counterparts. In one document, Erekat was quoted
telling the foreign minister: “It is no secret that on our map we proposed we
are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in history.”
The number of
refugees – he reportedly called them a “bargaining chip” – who could return
would be limited to 5,000 over five years, the rest to be absorbed by the
Palestinian state and other countries.
There would be land swaps allowing
Israel to retain some settlements.
Sounds good, so what’s wrong with it?
THE DETAILS revealed in the Palestinian Papers were not
new. Anyone following the peace process closely was aware of them, but the
Palestinian people were being fed a different story. Their leaders assured them
these core demands were inviolable.
Yet neither side was as
uncompromising and intransigent as the other said.
The leaked documents
shocked the Palestinian street. Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, had failed
– refused, in fact – to prepare them for the difficult compromises essential to
sealing a peace agreement leading to a two-state solution. There were
charges of betrayal. Abbas and Erekat were accused of selling out their
people; they had made promises they had no intention of keeping.
betrayal was their failure to speak the truth to the Palestinian street, and
thereby build a peace constituency. Abbas may have misled his own people,
but so did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Palestine Papers
discredited Netanyahu’s claim that Israel has no partner for peace. More
evidence appeared in the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times
reporting Abbas and former prime minister Ehud Olmert had made “far-reaching”
progress in negotiations during 2008 and 2009. The two spoke frankly about
compromises, but were not as forthcoming about their failure to pin down a deal
when they had the opportunity.
Some of the blame for missed opportunities
falls on the Obama administration, even though the Olmert-Abbas talks ended in
late 2008. Washington failed to build on progress made in those talks as a
starting point for its own stewardship, but instead diverted the process to a
distracting dispute over settlements. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have
capitalized on that blunder to derail the peace process and Washington seems
clueless about how to get it back on track.
Abbas has called for
long-delayed presidential and parliamentary elections in September. If those
campaigns are anything like ours, there will be a surplus of candidates making
outrageous promises they know they can’t keep, especially when it comes to
negotiations with Israel.
The message of the Palestine Papers is not how
much the PA leadership was willing to compromise, but how little it was willing
to confide in its own people at a time when the Arab street across the Middle
East is rising up against entrenched rulers.
Will it use the upcoming
elections to speak the truth to its people, or just feed them more empty