Commentary

The "Palestine Papers" Leak: A Game Changer?

Middle East In Focus

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Last week, Al Jazeera and The Guardian began the release of what many are now calling the “Palestine Papers.” According to Al Jazeera the leak reveals “nearly 1,700 files, thousands of pages of diplomatic correspondence detailing the inner workings of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. These documents — memos, e-mails, maps, minutes from private meetings, accounts of high level exchanges, strategy papers and even power-point presentations — date from 1999 to 2010.”

The leaks, followed with interest both in the region and in the West, reveal a more candid picture of the negotiation process, at least as it is seen from the Palestinian side. Among the most important details highlighted by various news articles were “the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to concede illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and to be “creative” about the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount; the compromises the Palestinian Authority was prepared to make on refugees and the right of return; details of the PA’s security cooperation with Israel; and private exchanges between Palestinian and American negotiators in late 2009, when the Goldstone Report was being discussed at the United Nations.”

The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth claimed this week that “minutes of meeting held in early 2008 between former FM and Palestinian negotiators Erekat [and] Qureia reveal Israel's discontent following deadly attack carried out by Al-Aqsa Brigades in Dimona. Sides also joked. 'Instead of saying go to hell, Israelis say go to Gaza,' Livni told them.”  In another report, S. Farhan Mustafa writes that “the Palestinian Authority apparently sacrificed a potential victory for Palestinian victims in exchange for favorable assurances on negotiations from the United States and, they hoped, from Israel

Following the release of the documents many asked who the persons behind the leak were and what their motivations were. Initial reports suggest that “Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has told the Associated Press and Haaretz that Palestinians have asked the United States, United Kingdom and France to assist in questioning three foreign nationals over the leak of internal Palestinian documents. Erekat, speaking on al-Jazeera, said he suspected more than a thousand documents were leaked to the Qatari-based television station by an employee of al-Jazeera, Clayton Swisher, who was formerly employed by the US State Department.”

According to Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad , those responsible include “six advisors in PA's negotiations department, including relative of former Knesset member. According to report, documents sold to Qatari network about six months ago. The report mentions four of the advisors' first names: Edward, a Briton; Clayton, an American who accompanied the US secretary of state at the time; Ziad, a French Palestinian; and Ramy, a Palestinian with an Israeli citizenship. One of the other two advisors was said to be ‘close to former Knesset Member Bishara.’”

As for the motivations of those who leaked them, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on the issue. Tariq Alhomayed writes in Asharq Alawsat that “the real question is: Who benefits from releasing these negotiation documents at this time, considering that they are non-binding and were not signed by anybody? That is the question, and all indications would suggest that Israel is the only beneficiary.” Herb Keinon, on the other hand, writing for the Jerusalem Post comes to a different conclusion when he asks, “Why is Al-Jazeera releasing the documents? Which documents is it releasing? What is Qatar’s agenda? Remember, Al-Jazeera is funded by Qatar, which is quarreling with Saudi Arabia, trying to cover its bets with Iran, and known for its sympathy for Hamas. Qatar, and thereby Al-Jazeera, is not necessarily guided by a desire to see success in Israeli-PA negotiations.”

Likewise, there is little agreement on what the significance of the revelations is with regard to the past, present and future of the negotiations. The reaction among Palestinians in East Jerusalem reveals more dismay than surprise.  Majeda El Batsh reports a conversation with an East Jerusalem resident: "What Al Jazeera put out is not new, we've known it for a long time," said 60-year-old Abed Dandis who runs a grocery store. But he expressed dismay at the scope of the apparent concessions offered in 2008, in which Palestinian negotiators suggested Israel could keep all but one of the Jewish settlement neighborhoods it has built in East Jerusalem.

In fact, for many the “Palestine Papers” reveal what they have suspected for a long time: Israel is not interested in peace. Michael Jansen writes in Jordan Times that “The ‘Palestine Papers’ released by Al Jazeera have exposed the extreme weakness of the Palestinian side, longstanding Israeli intransigence and US perfidy….Israel is not prepared to give up Palestinian land for peace. Its colonisation drive in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is proof positive of this contention.”

Writing in the Lebanese Daily Star, Rami Khouri concludes, “One gets the impression from the documents that the Israelis are not really serious about negotiating a comprehensive peace that comes anywhere close to the international consensus on this issue. The Palestinians are serious about a negotiated two-state agreement, but are unable to muster the diplomatic muscle needed to budge the Israelis.”

The Arab News editorial goes further: “[The] PEACE process is dead. Long live the peace process! After two decades of endless diplomatic negotiations, meetings and photo opportunities, the cat is finally out of the bag. It seems all those talks and photo ops were after all what they were suspected to be: a farce and a massive deception to fool the Palestinians and the rest of the world. The sentiment is also echoed by Linda Heard, also writing for Arab News, who worries that the revelations must “come as a blow to the hearts of those Palestinians who still retained some trust in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Many must be thinking, "Where is Yasser Arafat when you need him?"

In Israel, Gil Hoffman writes that “both the Left and the Right feel vindicated. Left says the documents prove a peace agreement was achievable, while the Right says they indicate unbridgeable gaps between the two sides.” However, others point to the willingness of the Palestinian delegation as a positive outcome of the leaks. Akiva Eldar writes in Haaretz that “the leaked documents completely discredit the claim that there is "no peace partner" made by the leader of the newly formed Atzmaut faction, Ehud Barak, and his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu. The documents are testimony that the Palestinians are willing to go the distance for peace: They will relinquish their claims on the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, the Etzion settlement bloc and the settlements along the Green Line. 

A similar sentiment is echoed in the Haaretz editorial: “The documents testify yet again that Israel has found a pragmatic Palestinian partner, interested in implementing the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders. This solution consists of border adjustments that would enable annexing a considerable part of the settlements, in this way gaining international recognition for annexing the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Despite this apparent silver lining in the leak of the “Palestine Papers,” in the short term the leak will create more headaches for all those involved in the negotiations aimed at bringing the Israeli-Palestininian conflict to an end. According to various news reports, Hamas “has called on Palestinians across Gaza and the West Bank to protest the conduct of the Palestinian Authority revealed by the Palestine Papers documents leaked by Al-Jazeera.  ‘Palestine is not for sale,’ said Hamas leader Yahya Musa in Khan Yunis. ‘The Palestinians deserve a better government than the one sitting in the West Bank.’ Denouncing the Fateh concessions on the Haram al-Sharif, settlements and the right of return, amidst burgeoning criticism for collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in assassinations and 2008's Operation Cast Lead, leaders and officials are calling for demonstrations across the Gaza Strip.”


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