The biggest news out of the Middle East this morning is courtesy of the Guardian and Al Jazeera: The Palestine Papers. They have just published parts of some 16,076 documents which the news services claim are leaked confidential records from Palestinian Authority sources of meetings, emails, and other communications between Israeli, Palestinian, and American negotiators between 2000 and 2010. The documents apparently reveal that in negotiations the Palestinian Authority had proposed to recognize Israeli annexation of most Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, turn supervision of the Temple Mount over to an international committee, and to limit Palestinian refugee returns to Israel to 10,000 over ten years.
Palestinian Authority representatives rushed to deny the leaks with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat calling them “a pack of lies” and Mahmoud Abbas wondering aloud where Al Jazeera could have even obtained such documents. These two, of course, figure prominently in the reports with Erekat himself quoted as saying the PA was offering Israel “the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history.” Former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei also makes numerous appearances. Meanwhile, voices in Hamas have seized the opportunity to accuse the PA of “cooperation with the occupation” while at least one Palestinian political analyst has accused Saeb Erekat of treason.
Whatever the veracity of these reports, the documents and Palestinian responses to them make clear several important issues in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first points to the much repeated idea that what Israel is willing to offer to the Palestinians is far less than what the Palestinians are willing to accept, and what the Palestinians demand of Israel is far more than Israel is willing to accept. At face value, these leaks cast doubt on this belief. If the Palestinians were in fact willing to accept major Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Israeli control, international supervision over the Temple Mount, and serious limits on “refugee return,” they would have travelled quite a distance toward accepting previous Israeli offers.
At the same time, one need only look at the available details of of this offer to see how far apart the two parties remain. While accepting most Jewish neighborhoods, the documents specifically rejects Israeli control of Har Homa and Givat Ze’ev as well as Ma’ale Adumim, Efrat, and Ariel. Ceding control of these neighborhoods (the first two) and cities (the following three) have not been up for meaningful discussion under any previous Israeli government.
Palestinian suggestions regarding the Temple Mount (which they refer to as Islamic holy sites) are bare on specifics. Would the Mount be under Israeli, Palestinian, or international sovereignty? Would the Mount, albeit under international supervision, be open to all religions or would it preserve the status quo monopoly of the Islamic Waqf? One should not rush to condemn an offer for being light on details, but so too should one not assume that just because an offer was made, it was a meaningful one.
On the issue of refugee return, this offer if actually made would be a meaningful one. Publically the Palestinian Authority has demanded a full return of all refugees and their descendants into Israel proper even after the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is also on this issue which critics of the PA will most likely dwell in their condemnations. Refugee return has been central to Palestinian nationalist objectives since the beginning and it has been on this issue, even more so than settlements and Jerusalem, on which the PA, Hamas, and other contenders for control of the Palestinian populace have consistently made their stand.
That the PA might have been willing to make such offers at all, however, has been taken by several commentators as an indication of Palestinian willingness to negotiate and make sacrifices at the cost of their public credibility. This juxtaposed to the apparent flat Israeli rejection of these offers present a picture in which the PA is the reasonable partner seeking peace, while Israel seeks to perpetuate the war. What these commentators neglect (and even the Al Jazeera report includes) is the details of the offer made by former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert at Annapolis in August 2008. While insisting upon maintaining Israeli control of all Jewish neighborhoods and major settlement blocs, it was remarkably close to the supposed PA offer on the issues of Jerusalem’s “Historic Basin,” provisional borders, and even refugees. If Israel is condemned for failing to accept the PA offer, so too must the PA be condemned for failing to accept the Israeli one.
More concerning for the prospects for peace than the veracity of the offers leaked to Al Jazeera or the political use of these offers to suppose Israeli rejectionism are the Palestinian and Arab responses to the leaks themselves. It is to be expected that Palestinian officials would deny the validity of the published documents. However, that they, their opponents in Hamas, and the purportedly neutral journalists and commentators at Al Jazeera have so vigorously denounced not only the reports but their content should concern anyone interested in a peace based on compromise between Israel and the Palestinians.
Among Israelis, particularly those on the left, it is often repeated that “everyone” knows more or less what a two-state solution will look like. According to representatives of Meretz, Avodah, Kadima, and perhaps even Shas, it will be based on the pre-1967 boundaries with Israeli annexation of major settlement blocs, land-swaps to compensate the Palestinians for territory lost, and some special status for the most contentious historical portions of Jerusalem. In terms of refugees, they insist that a future state of Palestine be the object of return although many are willing to accept a symbolic number and offer limited compensation.
Representatives of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu also mostly agree with this vision, even if they are more reticent about the establishment of a Palestinian state in the near future and are more willing to countenance swapping territories populated by Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They too have even expressed some willingness to allow “returns” on the basis of family reunifications as necessary. On the right, Habayit Hayehudi and Ichud Leumi (although with some adherents in other rightist parties) are alone in their fundamental opposition to this vision, preferring limited autonomy short of Palestinian statehood with no refugee return.
The leaked documents suggest at least some meaningful congruence with this image of peace. Yet the response to their publication suggests precisely the opposite; a Palestinian intellectual and political elite utterly unwilling to engage in meaningful compromise but which continues to demand unilateral concessions from Israel. From the perspective that Palestinians have already compromised by recognizing an Israeli (although not Jewish) state outside of Gaza and the West Bank, that they refuse to concede more is perhaps reasonable. However if negotiation is a process of give and take, and a mutually agreed peace is the preferred end result, the PA must be prepared to make sacrifices in turn. If the rhetoric responding to the “Palestine Papers” is any indication, they are not.