Leaked memos from a decade of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials roiled the Mideast peace process on Monday and put the embattled Palestinian Authority on the defensive. But moderate Palestinian observers and officials close to the government of President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that the documents reveal relatively little about the negotiations that isn’t already known. If anything, they say, the records expose how uncooperative the Israeli and American governments have been throughout the talks.
Palestinian officials and observers close to the Abbas government, meanwhile, began to confirm the veracity of the documents, which were published by Al Jazeera on Monday. Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator and aide to Abbas who left the government in 2006, said in an interview that, “In general, they seem authentic.” The Arabic-language Al-Arabiya news network also published what it described as “the full copy of the confidential” memos, and people familiar with the documents said that Al-Arabiya’s source was the Palestinian Authority itself.
The differences between the Al-Arabiya version of the memos and the documents published by Al Jazeera were not immediately clear. But in both cases, Palestinian negotiators are seen offering unprecedented concessions, including an agreement to cede all but one of the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem to the Israelis. The international community maintains that Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem are illegal, and the Palestinians have long claimed East Jerusalem as the future capital of their independent state. As the magazine Foreign Policy noted on Monday, longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat promised in 2009 that “there will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem — with every single stone in it — becomes the capital of Palestine.”
The memos, however, seem to contradict that claim.
“We proposed that Israel annexes all settlements in Jerusalem” except for the Jewish enclave of Har Homa, the chief Palestinian negotiator at the time, Ahmed Qurei, said in a 2008 meeting with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and the American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. “This is the first time in history that we make such a proposition; we refused to do so in Camp David.”
The revelation that Palestinian negotiators were prepared to essentially cede most of Jerusalem to the Israelis has prompted much criticism from pro-Palestinian activists. Ahmed Moor, a Palestinian blogger for the news website Mondoweiss, wrote on Monday, “Now we know for certain that there is no Palestinian leadership.” And Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who runs the popular blog Informed Consent, wrote, “I’m not sure that Fatah can survive being discredited to this extent. Nor, likely, can the American farce of a ‘peace process’ or a ‘two-state solution.’”
Supporters of the Palestinian Authority and observers close to the Abbas government dismissed those claims, arguing that the leaked memos only confirm what most officials involved in the peace process already knew. According to guidelines crafted by the Clinton administration in 2000, known as “The Clinton Parameters,” Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would become part of a Palestinian state in a final agreement, and Jewish neighborhoods would be annexed by Israel. This, al-Omari said, is what Qurei was referring to when he offered to cede most of the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem to the Israelis.
“This is a principle that was accepted by our side at that point,” al-Omari said of Qurei’s offer in the 2008 meeting, adding of the memos more broadly: “In terms of the substance, there’s nothing that’s not been in the public domain.”
Reaction to the news has been varied among pundits and political leaders in the Arab world. Daoud Kuttab, the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem and a moderate voice among Palestinian journalists, said in a telephone interview from Amman that the news was unlikely “to sway public opinion one way or the other,” but that it might “make people more entrenched.” Already, he said, the Islamist faction Hamas, which governs the Gaza strip, has accused the Palestinian Authority of “selling out.” Abbas loyalists, meanwhile, have attacked the Al Jazeera office in Ramallah, claiming the network was trying to “divide” the Palestinian people.
If there’s anything both sides can agree on, Kuttab added, it’s that the documents “reflect the arrogance of the Israelis and the impotence of the Americans.”
“The Israelis have been totally uncooperative in the peace process, while the Palestinians have been the ones making one offer after another,” Kuttab said. “The Americans have really allowed the Israelis to dictate the rules of the game.”
Al-Omari said the release of the confidential documents, which had “ambushed” the Palestinian Authority, may have been calculated to destabilize the Abbas government and spark “a new Tunis in Ramallah,” referring to the recent overthrow of the government in Tunisia. “It has spectacularly failed to do that,” al-Omari argued, though he added that, given the recent political turmoil in countries like Lebanon and Tunisia, the release of the so-called “Palestine Papers” is likely to add “more uncertainty in an already uncertain region.”