Negotiations: Vindicating Israel

"Palileaks," according to US organization, corroborate Israel’s narrative. Will this argument help Israel make its case en route to UN in Sept?

Abbas Olmert 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abbas Olmert 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek a deal with Hamas is being seen in Jerusalem as a gamble intended to attract support from the international community for a declaration of statehood from the United Nations General Assembly in September.
The PA is wagering that it is more important to present the world with an image of Palestinian unity in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip ahead of the vote than to distance itself from the terrorism of Hamas. By building a government of technocrats that would limit terrorism – at least for a few months – the Palestinians are trying to eliminate excuses that could be raised to prevent a state from arising.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu intended to tell European leaders in his visit to London and Paris next week that supporting the UN resolution in September would be giving the Palestinians theatrics but no state, while a state – and a peace agreement – could only be born via negotiations.
However, the Palestinian unity announcement, which took Israeli intelligence agencies by surprise, could make it harder for Netanyahu to make that argument, because there is no chance for negotiations with a Palestinian government built with a Hamas that refuses to renounce terrorism. Or the Palestinians might have played into Netanyahu’s hands by making it easier for him to warn the international community against creating a state that could serve as a base for terrorism against Israel’s heartland.
Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas will travel the world between now and September to try to sell their respective sides of the story. One element that could be crucial in getting world leaders to accept their narratives ahead of September 2011 is to make sure they understand why substantive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians ended in September 2008.
This is especially important now because the Palestinians justified seeking a state from the UN and an agreement with Hamas by saying that reaching a deal with Israel was not an option. One of the central arguments that Abbas is making to world leaders is that he tried to reach an agreement with Netanyahu’s dovish predecessor Ehud Olmert, and he came close, but the criminal investigations that brought down Olmert’s government also ended chances of reaching peace.
Olmert has argued that the reason peace was not achieved is that he offered Abbas a sweetheart deal and the Palestinian leader never responded. He says that on August 31, 2008, three weeks before he resigned, he offered 100 percent of West Bank land (minus 6.8% in land swaps), 10,000 Palestinian refugees returning to Israel’s final borders, and the holy basin of Jerusalem’s Old City coming under joint Israeli-Palestinian-American- Jordanian-Saudi control. He last met with Abbas on September 16 of that year – five days before he resigned, and more than six months before he left office – and Abbas did not respond or make a counteroffer.
The 1,700 documents revealed by Al Jazeera and the Guardian in January, called “the Palestine Papers” or “Palileaks,” were seen by much of the world as proof that the Palestinians were willing to make unprecedented concessions on Jerusalem and refugees in Abbas’s talks with Olmert. That impression was fed by the analysis of the two media outlets that released the documents selectively in a way that made Abbas seem overly generous and Israel overly hard-line.
But a new reading of the documents by a Christian organization in the United States found that unlike the way they were reported, the Palestine Papers actually proved the Israeli point of view correct on all the key issues.
Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East – which bills itself as a liberal, non-Evangelical Christian (mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic) organization focused on bringing facts about the Arab-Israeli conflict to American churches – had a team of researchers read through all of the 1,700 Palestine Papers.
The organization has been trying to get the world to look more deeply into the papers as well, rather than accept the misreporting of them as fact.
THE KEY concession that the Palestinians were reported to have made was control over Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Al Jazeera broadcast that the Palestinians had offered to “let Israel keep all but one of the Jewish enclaves it built in East Jerusalem,” referring to Har Homa, and settlements over the Green Line amounting to some 2 percent of the land controlled by Jordan between 1948 and 1967.
But Christians for Fair Witness found that the Palestine Papers did not indicate that Abbas made a counter- offer to Olmert’s August 31 proposal. They revealed documents indicating that the Palestinians had decided ahead of the final Olmert-Abbas meeting on September 16 not to issue a counter-offer at that meeting and that Abbas had been advised by his team to wait to respond until George W. Bush was out of the White House.
A December 2, 2008, memo indicated that in response to Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch’s question about Olmert’s offer, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Welch that “We offered a 2% swap that would allow 70% of the settlers to remain.”
But the 2% figure is not mentioned at all in either a September 16, 2008, memo of “talking points” for Abbas at his final meeting with Olmert, or a September 22, 2008, memo of “Palestinian Talking Points Regarding Israeli Proposal.” Therefore, it appears that the 2% figure did not play a part in the Palestinian thinking about possible responses to Olmert’s package offer. Moreover, there is no indication whatsoever of this figure having been presented to Olmert post-September 16, 2008.
“Nowhere in the Palestine Papers is there any indication that Abbas ever communicated this ‘counter-offer’ of a ‘2% swap’ – or any other – to Olmert,” the organization wrote.
“And while the Palestinians had memos and maps outlining the Israeli offer in detail, there is no documentation in the Palestine Papers of the parameters of a counter-offer designed to respond to this offer.”
THE SECOND concession the Palestinians reportedly made in the talks with Olmert involved the fate of the Temple Mount and the Holy Basin.
“The [PA] proposed international control of the key Jerusalem holy site,” the reports said.
But the documents revealed by Christians for Fair Witness found that Al Jazeera had wrongly portrayed the international control over the Holy Basin as an official PA proposal. In the document, Erekat told American diplomats – and not Olmert – that he was speaking in his private capacity “That was not an offer, it was just talk,” the organization said.
Finally, on the refugee issue, Al Jazeera reported that the Palestinians had agreed that Israel would only take in 10,000 refugees a year for 10 years for a total of 100,000, giving up their demand that all refugees from 1948 and their descendants – amounting to several million people – enter Israel.
But the documents highlighted by Christians for Fair Witness report a conversation between Abbas and Olmert that Erekat recounted, in which Abbas said, “Are you joking?” to Olmert’s figure of 10,000 over 10 years. In a September 22, 2008, internal memo drafted in response to Olmert’s offer, it states that “while we agree to negotiate the number of returnees in consideration of Israel’s capacity of absorption, this particular offer cannot be taken seriously.”
The Palestinians estimated Israel’s absorption capacity at slightly more than a million people over a 10-year period. That’s the only concession the Palestinians were willing to make on the issue. And even that would be only temporary.
They expected additional “returns” later on.
“While there have been claims in the media that the Palestinian Authority was willing to offer great compromises on refugees, the Palestine Papers reveal that this was not the case,” the organization wrote. “While Palestinian negotiators spoke publicly about compromise on refugees, privately they spoke of the ‘Right of Return’ as a matter of individual choice that would have to be extended to each of over seven million ‘refugees.’ They anticipated the potential ‘return’ of millions of Palestinians to the State of Israel, with Palestinians retaining the open-ended right to try to negotiate additional ‘returns’ beyond any number initially agreed upon in a peace treaty.”
The organization expressed hope that just like the understanding that former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down a generous Israeli offer at Camp David in 2000 improved Israel’s image internationally, the same could happen if the world realized that Abbas repeated Arafat’s mistake in September 2008.
It said it was praying that this could help Israel avoid a major crisis this coming September.