Anyone who has followed the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process over the last two decades knows that the “Palestine Papers” – so dramatically released and tendentiously packaged by both Al-Jazeera and The Guardian this week – do not contain any earth shattering revelations.
Clarifying observations? Definitely, like when PA President Mahmoud Abbas is asked in May 2009 by a legal adviser for the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) whether, as a Palestinian from Nazareth with Israeli citizenship, he will be granted citizenship in a future Palestinian state.
“The answer, strategically, is no,” Abbas said. “You should stay where you [are], protect your rights and preserve your community. You don’t need a passport to prove that you are a Palestinian. In 1948 Palestinians in Israel were 138,000 and now above a million. That homeland is your homeland. You must remain there and this does not detract whatsoever from the fact that you are Arabs and Palestinians. We do not want you to participate in any intifadas though.
Raise two banners. Equality and an independent state for your brothers in the occupied territory.”
Are there telling comments? Aplenty, such as when US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice advised the Palestinians in July 2008 not to pay too much notice to what US candidates said during campaigns.
Referring to Jerusalem, the documents show Rice saying: “I wouldn’t worry about what people say in their campaigns. [US president George W.] Bush said he would immediately start the process of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
He is still ‘starting the process.’” And there are various tidbits of political gossip, such as when PA negotiator Saeb Erekat and EU special envoy Marc Otte discuss the French in June 2008: “[Former French foreign minister Bernard] Kouchner is a problem,” Erekat is quoted as saying, to which Otte replied, “In confidence, I share your concerns...
The way [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy works is by coups, spectacle.
But you need to know that at the Quai d’Orsay below Kouchner is a good political director. We have to make the best of the French [rotating] presidency [of the EU].”
Or when Erekat, in a briefing with the NSU in May 2009, said of National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, “As far as contact with Israel, it’s business as usual. I talk with Amos Gilad and other generals. Uzi Arad and I mutually do not want to meet with each other.”
BUT BEYOND putting some flesh on what up until now has been very dry
bones daily reporting of how the process is evolving (numerous memoirs
by participants at different stages since Oslo have given color to
previous rounds of discussions), nothing emerged in these papers that
fundamentally changes the parameters of the conversation.
We all knew the building’s basic architecture – that the maximum an
Israeli government could give is, so far, much less than the minimum the
Palestinians could accept. These documents just show you inside the
The oft-repeated mantra that “everyone knows what a final agreement will
look like” has – as a result of the documents – proven somewhat hollow.
When Israelis, especially the Israeli left, make this comment, they are
generally referring to an agreement that will be a two-state solution,
with Jewish Jerusalem in Israeli hands, Arab Jerusalem in Palestinian
hands, some kind of international cooperation on the “Holy Basin” and
the large settlement blocks under Israeli control in return for land
Read the documents, however, and it becomes clear that not everyone
knows this is what the solution will look like. For instance, the
Palestinians don’t know it, and they are adamant in not ceding the major
settlement blocks, such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.
AND WHILE those with a clear agenda – such as The Guardian
and certain sectors of the Israeli press – have spun the documents as a
sign of widespread Palestinian generosity and flexibility, the mind
struggles to find such evidence in the territorial realm.
A willingness to let Israel “keep” the Jerusalem neighborhoods of French
Hill, Ramot and Gilo doesn’t exactly feel like great Palestinian
But where there was evidence of movement was on the refugee issue, and this should not go unrecognized.
It is no small thing for the Palestinian leadership to acknowledge that 5
million Palestinians from abroad will not be “returning” to Israel.
While there are still gaps between the numbers the Palestinians are
demanding and what Israel will accept, the fact that behind closed doors
the PA leadership acknowledges that the vast majority won’t be
“returning” is a sign of movement.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is the immediate reaction by the Palestinian leadership to
the revelations inside the documents. When the story first broke Sunday
evening, the PA leadership could have owned up to its willingness to
bend a little. It could have taken a stand and said, “Yes, we are
willing to compromise, because that is how we will get an agreement,
this is how the vast majority of our aspirations will be met.”
With that simple act, the PA leadership would have begun to convince
many skeptical Israelis of its sincerity. This would have done more to
improve the PA’s image on the Israeli “street” than any number of
meetings in Ramallah with selected journalists and already sympathetic
But it didn’t. The initial reaction was reflected by what Erekat told
reporters: The leaks were “lies and half truths,” as if it were a crime
to say, “You know what, we too are also going to have to compromise.”
MUCH HAS been written over the years about how Israel has given up on a
dream of Greater Israel. And it has. But the Palestinians have never
given up on their maximalist imaginings regarding Jerusalem, the West
Bank and the refugees.
The PaliLeaks documents shows that this reality has slowly begun seeping into the PA leadership, if only still in private.
The knee-jerk denials are troubling, indeed. But what may be hopeful is
that these denials were walked back a bit later in the week (Erekat
penned an article in The Guardian
Wednesday in which he did not repeat his “pack of lies” argument), and that outside of being pummeled by Al- Jazeera, The Guardian
and Hamas, the streets of Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and Tulkarm were
not full of protesters burning tires and demanding of their leaders,
“How dare you? How could you?” Perhaps the PA security services
prevented this, but as the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia proved, it is
possible these days in the Arab world to get ones’ voice heard, if one
really wants to.
Possibly, however, the muted reaction in the West Bank and east
Jerusalem shows that – even though the PA leadership has not prepared
its people for the compromises and concessions that will be essential
for any agreement – the people, weary of the situation and tired of
chasing pie-in-the sky fantasies, have started emotionally and
intellectually preparing for it themselves.