Yesterday Al Jazeera and the Guardian published excerpts from “the Palestine Papers,” an unprecedentedly large trove of leaked confidential notes from Palestinian negotiators. Among other things, we learn that in 2008 the Palestinian Authority was offering Israel nearly all of Jerusalem—much more than the P.A. (which has called for a halt to Jewish building in East Jerusalem) has ever publicly proposed, and, as negotiator Saeb Erekat memorably calls it, “the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history.”
Resolution of the “right of return” issue for a merely token price was also on the table.
It seems safe to say the leak did not come in an official capacity from the P.A., since it will hurt the credibility of the West Bank’s governing authority: As the New York Times reports, the P.A. has (un-credibly) called the documents “a pack of lies,” while Hamas, the P.A.’s chief rival for allegiance in the territories, said the documents showed the P.A. was “attempting to liquidate the Palestinian cause.” And indeed, if your definition of the Palestinian cause includes at least some form of sovereignty over much of East Jerusalem (and it should), then it is actually difficult to dispute Hamas’s allegation.
The document dump is also unrelated to WikiLeaks. But much like that group’s revelations, the news here is less the substance itself and more the evaporation of plausible deniability. Close followers of the peace process have known that the two sides actually did get close in 2008, as the documents prove; almost by definition, “getting close” would have meant the Palestinians offering in private far more than they have in public and the Israelis still turning it down. What the leak has done is ensure that everyone knows that the P.A. was willing to offer this much: News not likely to play well at home. (According to the Guardian, more documents, touching on matters like Palestinian cooperation with Israeli security authorities—also a touchy subject on the streets of Nablus, and also one already reported on—will be rolled out in the coming days.)
Critics of Israel will argue that the documents reveal an Israeli leadership—one even less obstinant than the current one—that was not willing to meet Palestinian leadership more than halfway. As the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland argues, “International opinion will see concrete proof of how far the Palestinians have been willing to go, ready to move up to and beyond their ‘red lines,’ conceding ground that would once have been unthinkable.”
But was that willingness truly there—or, more importantly, was it truly credible? Supporters of Israel will rightfully note that Israeli negotiators may have had reason to be skeptical of the P.A.’s ability to convince its constituents to go along with these generous concessions—a skepticism confirmed by the wide gap between what the P.A. says in public and what, we now know, it says in private. In other words, if Israel had said yes, the offer would no longer have been secret, and it would have had to be sold to the Palestinian public; and the fact that the P.A. felt the need to keep it private, and has now felt the need to deny it (“pack of lies”), indicates that the P.A. believes the Palestinian public will overwhelmingly react to the deal negatively.
So while I want to agree with Freedland’s analysis, I predict international decision-makers will not be able to help from noticing that this Palestinian willingness to make broad concessions was strictly private, and that, made public—as it now has been—it will be so unpopular as to require backtracking—as it already has. As Freedland himself reports, “These texts will do enormous damage to the standing of the Palestinian Authority and to the Fatah party that leads it.” Given that the alternative to these is Hamas, I don’t see how these revelations actually represent further bricks on the road to a peaceful, internationally accepted Palestinian state.
One would like to imagine an Israeli leadership daring enough to call the Palestinian bet and force all hands on the table—whether in the form of agreeing to the 2008 deal or, in 2010, extending the settlement freeze, whether to East Jerusalem or past its September expiration. Such a concession would have either demonstrated to the world the fundamental stagnancy of the peace process, or—maybe?—have taken a real step toward its fulfillment. We’ll never know.
Among the revelations:
• Erekat tells the Americans that the Palestinians have offered “the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history”—his ostentatiously choice of Hebrew word—“plus symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state” [sic]. Under this secret Palestinian proposal, Israel would annex all of Jerusalem except for the Jewish district of Har Homa—the most expansive offer the Palestinians have been known to have made.
• Speaking of the refugees, the deal that seems to have been on offer regarding right-of-return was articulated, in August 2008, by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; under it, Israel would acknowledge “suffering of” but “not responsibility for” Palestinian refugees and would absorb 5,000 such refugees over five years on “humanitarian” grounds.
• Were Israeli-Syrian talks, conducted through Turkey, more advanced than we know? Here, in May 2008, Tzipi Livni remarks, “We’re giving up the Golan.”
• Former Palestinian prime minister and negotiator Ahmed Qureia insists on the need to maintain contiguity between Arab parts of Jerusalem and the Arab town of Bethlehem in the West Bank “to address natural growth”—“natural growth” being a key Israeli buzzword in terms of settlement construction. Funny!
• In the same document, Erekat confirms the offer of “the largest Jerusalem in history.”
• In May 2008, Livni acknowledges, “I appreciate how hard it was for you to make the suggestion.”