Editor's Notes: Missing a moment of truth

Instead of denying the charges of seeking a viable peace accord, Abbas should be telling his people that that’s exactly what he and his negotiators have been doing.

Olmert and Abbas 311 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert and Abbas 311
(photo credit: AP)
Shame on you, apoplectic analysts and commentators at Al-Jazeera and the Guardian.
And learn to live with it, Palestinians. These are your lives and ours. This is your future and ours.
Potentially, this could be your moment of truth – of awkward, hard-to-swallow, unavoidable truth. Your decades-belated 1948 moment, the beginning of your reluctant internalization that this small, glorious, bloodied land is fated to be shared.
It was that realization that led the pioneering Zionist leadership, tantalized by the overdue revival of Jewish statehood, to grudgingly accept a partition of mandatory Palestine intended to create a Jewish and an Arab sovereign entity side by side. Those who represented you then chose instead to believe that the nascent Jewish sovereign entity could be strangled at birth. This, now, could be the moment when you finally begin to move past the “nakba” catastrophe that you and those who spoke for you helped bring upon yourselves, and that has prompted intermittent conflict and relentless hostility to the Jewish state ever since.
THE RESPONSE so far has been anything but encouraging. To date, the publication of the “Palestine Papers” is resonating in precisely the way the extremists want it to. It stands to wreak exactly the havoc that the fury-fueling editors of Al- Jazeera, the Guardian and beyond are spinning it to wreak.
The headlines and analyses have placed the most transparently rejectionist spins on these leaked negotiating papers. From Al-Jazeera, for example, we’ve had headlines like: “PA selling short the refugees”; “Qurei to Livni: ‘I’d vote for you,’” and “Anger as papers show negotiators were ready to hand over Palestinian neighborhoods.”
Al-Jazeera also carried this spectacularly tendentious opening to one ostensible news article: “The Palestinian Authority (PA) has shown operational willingness to co-operate with Israel to kill its own people, The Palestine Papers indicate.” And this inflammatory subhead on another: “For Fatah, the Annapolis process seems to have been as much about crushing Hamas as about ending Israel’s occupation.”
For its part, the Guardian set its tone from day one with the banner: “Secret files reveal slow death of Middle East peace process,” while simultaneously intimating its disapproval of the kind of compromise that might actually facilitate a peace process with headlines like “Papers reveal how Palestinian leaders gave up fight over refugees.”
It headlined its Wednesday edition with “Palestine papers reveal MI6 drew up plan for crackdown on Hamas” – as though there was something untoward in the British intelligence services helping to tackle a terrorist organization that kills Israeli and Palestinian civilians. That same day it ran a comment article by Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan, giving him a global platform to assert: “The Palestinian cause has been betrayed. But no more... These stooge negotiators have acted as tools for the repression of their people. We in Hamas must seize back the initiative.” The Hamas propagandist went on to declare that PA leaders Mahmoud Abbas, Ahmed Qurei and Saeb Erekat “were making offers that, had they been accepted by the Israelis, would have represented the biggest act of treason in the region’s history.”
Providing a platform for writing steeped in hostility to Israel, and by extension to the Abbas hierarchy for engaging with us, these news outlets appear to be doing their utmost to fashion a Hamas-empathizing narrative of Abbas-overseen betrayal of his people.
The Arab public, and most relevantly the Palestinians, are being encouraged by those manipulating these leaks to rise up in outrage over the sparks of moderation, of goodwill, of readiness to compromise that are to be found among the hard-line positions adopted by Abbas and his colleagues in their contacts with their Israeli and American interlocutors.
Swept along in waves of Al- Jazeera-inspired anger, the Palestinians can choose to rise up against Abbas – for the crime of having acknowledged the fundamental “illogic” and unworkability of the hitherto sacrosanct demand for a Jewish- state-destroying “right of return.” They can brand Erekat a traitor for the crime of readiness to reconsider the previously unbending insistence on Palestinian sovereignty at the Temple Mount.
And who knows, if the opprobrium rises to sufficient heights, Abbas might indeed decide he’s had enough. Erekat might indeed conclude that the role of chief negotiator is a thankless, and an increasingly dangerous, task. Then the opinion-shapers of Al-Jazeera and beyond, the rejectionists everywhere, could rejoice in the demolition of even these faint hopes of accommodation, and the region could settle back down to its more familiar routine of violence, terrorism and war.
BUT THE Palestine Papers offer that other avenue, the constructive avenue, as well.
If the Palestinian public wills it, if its leaders have the guts, and if what’s left of the so-called moderate Arab leadership elsewhere in the region can put aside hypocrisy and find the strength to support them, this episode could yield an unprecedented sobriety. It could mark the beginning of the honest internalization among the peoples of this region that the Jews have sovereign rights here – and that maximalist demands for the “right of return,” for every inch of disputed territory, for unchallenged control of every holy place, are simply not going to fly.
That if there is to be a Palestinian state, there will need to be dramatic Palestinian compromise. And that Abbas and Qurei and Erekat, for all that their demands fall a long way short of what even Israel’s more moderate negotiators have been able to consider living with, have been serving the cause of Palestinian independence and statehood in beginning to grapple with the compromises required.
“People keep saying that we never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” Erekat told US envoy George Mitchell in a leaked October 2009 meeting.” Well, there’s an opportunity here – an opportunity for the PA to tell the hard truths to the Palestinian public, and simultaneously elevate its credibility with the Israeli public. But the PA is giving every indication of spurning it.
FROM AN Israeli point of view, the Palestine Papers often make dismal reading. The outrageous concessions for which Abbas and his supposedly treasonable colleagues are being so lambasted by their critics are quite difficult to identify.
The transcripts, rather, reveal a Palestinian leadership that considers almost all compromise on their side to have been completed in their grudging ostensible tolerance for an Israel in its pre-1967 lines. Their positions show no notice of Jewish claims in Judea and Samaria, and scant awareness of the fact that Israeli security concerns have been heightened by decades of conflict – including in periods before the territories were captured – and by the impact of the Palestinian strategic resort to terrorism in the second intifada.
If accurate, furthermore, these transcripts negate the conventional wisdom that the details of a permanent deal are essentially clear; and that all that is needed is the mutual will to sign off on them and proceed to implementation. Actually, these papers indicate, the details aren’t clear after all.
Contrary to the widespread sense in Israel that the Palestinian Authority was reconciled to an expansion of Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank that would encompass the major settlement blocs, it turns out the Palestinian negotiators have certainly not accepted the idea of Israeli sovereignty at Ariel and Kedumim, or even Ma’aleh Adumim and Efrat, for that matter. Similarly, the conviction that, were Israel to roll back its sovereign claim to Arab neighborhoods in annexed east Jerusalem, the Palestinians would concede Israeli sovereignty in the city’s post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods is shattered by the Palestinian refusal, documented in the negotiating papers, to accept Israeli sovereignty at Har Homah.
The Palestinians are insisting not on 90, 94 or 98 percent of the territory. They want an unbudging 100%, including east Jerusalem. A return to the pre-1967 lines. And they are prepared to contemplate adjustments – land swaps – on a maximum of just 1.9% of the total east Jerusalem and West Bank area, which is less than a third of the minimum that Israel demands, and subject to complex caveats.
The two sides, as revealed in these papers, are far, far apart on the core issues of border demarcation, settlements and Jerusalem. The differences seem less acute on security matters, and there are grounds for encouragement where the “right of return” is concerned – notably with Abbas’s quoted March 2009 declaration, to his own colleagues, that “on the numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or even 1 million – that would mean the end of Israel.” Still, in that same meeting, Abbas immediately went on to say that Israel “said 5,000 over 5 years. This is even less than family reunification and is not acceptable.”
Given that even the opposition Kadima leader and exnegotiator Tzipi Livni was adamant, including in her recent interview with me in these columns, that not a single Palestinian refugee would be allowed into Israel, on this issue, too, it is far from clear that the gulfs between the respective red lines are bridgeable.
When you consider that the sessions documented in the Palestine Papers mark the culmination of years of interaction, and that most of the negotiations documented took place between what are widely seen as the unprecedentedly moderate Abbas- and Olmert-led leaderships, the prospects for substantive progress look bleak indeed, almost a lost cause. This is even more the case given current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s conviction that he can drive a better territorial bargain for Israel.
One small comfort is that, even as they dig in to their positions, both sides acknowledge during these sessions that they do not want the cause to be lost. Another is that, on the basis of these revelations, it is clear that Abbas, unlike Arafat, is not clandestinely working hand-in-glove with Hamas.
EVEN MORE dispiriting than the negotiating gulfs revealed in these documents, however, is the nature of the Abbas-led hierarchy’s response to the cynical, extremist criticism they have aroused. The PA has called the publication of the documents a “conspiracy” designed to discredit and ultimately topple Abbas’s administration – which may well be the case. It has also, however, alternately branded the content fabricated and distorted, with Abbas himself asserting that some of the positions attributed to Palestinian negotiators in the transcripts were in fact Israeli proposals.
If that is the case, if Abbas does not stand behind the limited steps toward moderation attributed to his negotiators, then the negotiating cause is lost, indeed. But if it is not the case, then the PA leadership is both failing itself and its people with its denials and obfuscations.
Abbas’s most problematic failure, since succeeding Yasser Arafat, has been his inability or disinclination to change the hostile Palestinian public attitude to most every aspect of Israel. In 2000, Arafat accurately claimed to president Clinton that if he approved the mooted deal with Barak, he would be signing his own death warrant. It was Arafat himself, however, who had fostered that climate of hostility, by duplicitously perpetuating a narrative that derided the Jewish nation’s millennia of history in this land – ridiculing, for instance, the notion that a Jewish Temple had ever stood in Jerusalem. Abbas has perpetuated this grand deception. Just weeks ago, his PA endorsed another “study” that denied Jewish ties to the Western Wall.
In refusing to highlight to his people the legitimacy of Jewish claims here, and thus the imperative to compromise, he both alienated many middle-ground Israelis, and left himself vulnerable to the hysterical condemnation that Al-Jazeera is now spearheading. Why were you making concessions to those illegitimate Jews, he is now being asked? And the tragedy is being compounded as he answers, in effect, “There were no such concessions,” rather than, “Because the Jews have claims here.”
Instead of denying the allegedly treasonous charges of seeking a viable accord on the refugee issue, on borders, on Jerusalem, Abbas should be telling his people that, yes, that’s exactly what he and his negotiators have been doing. That, too bad, the Jews do actually have sovereign claims here. That, unpalatable though it may be to hear, there’s going to have to be territorial compromise. 
That so long as his people insist on the “right of return,” they will never gain the right to statehood. That it is those who shriekingly reject all talk of compromise who are keeping the Palestinians from independence. That it is the conduct of these rejectionists that is treasonable.
In these fevered first few days of the Palestine Papers, Abbas and his colleagues have fallen back into defensiveness, evidently believing that self-preservation requires appeasing the extremist voices. What’s called for is quite the reverse. What’s needed is for Abbas to stand up and not only publicly endorse the halting moves his negotiators made in the negotiating rooms, but indicate a readiness for the wider compromises that would truly facilitate an accord. Then, furthermore, he would have the standing to argue to the thoroughly conflicted Israeli public – which largely wants an accord and largely doubts Abbas’s capacity to deliver one – that Netanyahu is not being sufficiently forthcoming.
At whatever personal risk, in the wider interests of his people and ours, Abbas could capitalize on the revelations from the Palestine Papers, and finally spell out to his people the compromises necessary for their independence. How ironic and how extraordinary it would be if the publication of texts designed to bring him down was instead utilized by Abbas to tell the Palestinians once and for all where their true interests lie, and to act upon them.
How brave that would be. How tragically unlikely.