When the reaction is more important than the story itself

Palestinian public response to revelations that PA leadership moved closer to some of Israel’s positions on certain issues was muted. Why?

Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Mitchell with Erekat and Abbas 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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 rooms.
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 swaps elsewhere.
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 elasticity.
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 intellectuals.
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.