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Palestinian documents provide peek at peace talks

By Ethan Bronner

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:26 a.m. HST, Jan 25, 2011



JERUSALEM » Israeli-Palestinian peace talks over the past 17 years have operated at two levels, one public, the other behind closed doors. To the world and their own people, each side spoke of sacred, nonnegotiable demands, while in the Jerusalem hotel suites where the officials met those very demands were under negotiation.

Internal Palestinian documents leaked to Al Jazeera and published this week illustrate that dichotomy. The public Palestinian posture is that every inch of East Jerusalem that was taken must be yielded. In reality, Palestinian officials have acknowledged that much would stay part of Israel in exchange for land swaps elsewhere.

The documents, a mix of friendly banter and sharp exchanges illustrating the complex interpersonal relations between top Israelis and Palestinians, also suggest that the thorniest problems were not only those widely assumed — how to divide Jerusalem and what to do about the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel — but also which side would get certain large settlements.

One of those was Maale Adumim, a major Israeli settlement near Jerusalem. At one key meeting on June 15, 2008, Condoleezza Rice, then the U.S. secretary of state, said to the Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei, "I don't think that any Israeli leader is going to cede Maale Adumim." Qurei replied, "Or any Palestinian leader."

The reaction among Palestinians to the 1,600 documents, consisting of meeting minutes and e-mails, has been mixed. Most people seem to have been shocked that their leaders were seen to be offering to let go of large parts of Jerusalem. Others accused Al Jazeera of being an enemy. Its offices in Ramallah came under brief attack on Monday night and a top Palestinian official told a news conference this was part of an anti-Palestinian campaign by the emir of Qatar, the Persian Gulf state where Al Jazeera is based.

"Those who have followed things are not shocked, but we wonder why this leak occurred now," Majdi Malki, a sociologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said. "Is it an effort to hurt the Palestinian Authority when it is weak?"

Largely because of the gap in public perception and reality, and because each side has a large minority opposed to any concessions at all, one of the central tenets of the peace talks has been to keep all details confidential until a full package could be presented.

As Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, said in that June meeting, "We agreed that there will be no agreement before agreeing on everything." Otherwise, each concession is picked apart by those being asked to give something up, which is precisely what is happening as a result of these leaks.

Palestinian concessions are getting far more publicity than what Israel would concede in return. That makes Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, look weak, which may have been the motive of the leaker.

Saeb Erekat, the current chief Palestinian negotiator, said Monday in response to the leaks that the Palestinians would submit any agreement to a national referendum anyway, so no one was giving anything away without the permission of the population.

Talks have been on and off for years, but those that seemed closest to yielding results were held in mid-2008 between the government of Ehud Olmert, then the prime minister of Israel, and Abbas. They talked about dividing Jerusalem's residential areas between them and coming to an arrangement for the holy sites that included oversight by an international committee, including several Arab states.

The sides also traded numbers of Palestinian refugees permitted to move to Israel. Along with their descendants, the refugees number in the millions today. The Palestinians suggested 10,000 a year over 10 years, and the Israelis offered 1,000 a year over five years. The numbers were revealed Sunday, but the documents containing the quotations were posted Monday; more documents are to be released, but the central points were included in Sunday's articles.

While neither Jerusalem nor the refugee issue was agreed on, the two sides seemed to be coming to terms on the approach. Olmert, who was forced to leave office as a result of indictments on corruption charges, has written a memoir that includes his recollections of how close the two sides got. Publication of excerpts is due to begin in Israel on Friday.

A spokesman for Olmert, Yaacov Galanti, said the gaps between the two sides were not great, which he said proves that Israeli claims that there is no peace partner on the other side are false.

After Olmert stepped down, the talks stopped and a more hawkish government led by Benjamin Netanyahu took office. Netanyahu has said he wanted to start the negotiations over, not pick them up where they had left off, because they offered too many concessions to the Palestinians.

In that sense, the leaked documents are a kind of Rorschach test in which each side sees its own weakness and the other's hardheadedness.

Moshe Yaalon, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party and minister for strategic affairs in his government, said Monday in an interview that the documents showed the Palestinians were not serious about peace because they did not acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.

"The core issue in this dispute is not borders but our very existence," he said. "No Palestinian leader has been willing to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Another top Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the big question for him was whether the revelations would make the Palestinians more timid in future negotiations because of public indignation. He said they seemed to be walking away from their concessions since they were revealed.

Alternatively, the official said, the opposite could be true — the Palestinian public could get used to the kind of concessions needed for a deal now that they were in the open, and that would ease future talks.

Those on the Israeli left said the leaks proved that Abbas led a flexible government and that Israel should seize the moment to negotiate with it.

In a jeans store in central Ramallah, two men argued about the meaning of the revelations. A man who gave only his first name, Ali, said that the point of the leaks was clearly to weaken Abbas, and that Al Jazeera should be criticized. But another customer, Zaher, said that the people should know what is being offered by their leaders, and that the network had performed a public service. He also said the leaks brought no major surprises.

In Gaza, Hamas slammed the Palestinian Authority, saying it had betrayed its people.

Bernard Avishai, an Israeli writer who has interviewed Olmert and Abbas on the deal that they nearly reached, said the only thing that surprised him in the leaks was what was left out: "They focus on Palestinian concessions without presenting the other side of the negotiations. The Palestinians were going to get a great deal for their concessions."






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