How leaked Palestinian documents will affect Abbas, peace process

Al Jazeera has begun to publish 1,300 documents that detail far-reaching Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem and borders. The offers were rebuffed by Israel.

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, listens to senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat during a press conference following his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, not pictured, at the presidential palace in Cairo, Monday, Jan. 24.
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A trove of secret documents obtained by Al Jazeera shows that Palestinian negotiators offered far-reaching concessions on borders and Jerusalem in 2008, but that their Israeli counterparts balked.

The cache of 1,300 documents run from 1999 to 2010, a dense and volatile chapter of Israeli-Palestinian history. It spans two cycles of negotiation and deadlock, the flare-up and fizzle of the second Palestinian uprising, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the demise of Yasser Arafat and consequent weakening of his secular Fatah Party, and the rise of the Islamist movement Hamas.

Copying the strategy of Wikileaks, Al Jazeera has promised to release the documents gradually.

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The publication of the trove could generate a storm of criticism against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah-dominated administration is already seen by many Palestinians as corrupt and out of touch with the public, because of his readiness to compromise on cardinal demands.

Among them were allowing Israel to annex Jewish neighborhoods in areas of East Jerusalem conquered in 1967 that are claimed by Palestinians as part of their future capital; and giving Israel control over Jewish areas of the Old City.

"Abbas is in a very hot spot. He owes the Palestinians an explanation. We were under the impression that Abbas was sticking to the pillars of consensus,’’ said Bassem Ezbeidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University. "If it's 'yes,’ he is in trouble, if it's 'no,’ he has to show evidence. It’s a war between two narratives. The first one by Al Jazeera and the second one is the Palestinian Authority.’’

Even before the revelation, Abbas’s Palestinian Authority had come under heavy pressure from public and political allies to boycott negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and this could further damage their image.

'It shows Abbas is best partner Israel could hope for'

Many Israeli experts said the concessions that the Palestinians detailed to the Israelis were not new. Just last month Abbas hinted at compromise when he told an audience of Israels that once negotiations on borders and security were concluded, reaching agreement on Jerusalem and refugees would be comparatively simple.

Gershon Baskin, the codirector of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information, said that the Palestinians accepted the peace parameters published by Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency calling for Jerusalem to be divided based on neighborhoods.

But putting the detailed concessions in the global spotlight demonstrates that the Palestinians are serious partners in the peace process, providing ammunition for Israeli doves who believe that Israel should do more to embrace Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the best partner with whom to reach a peace deal.

"This certifies the assertion that there is a Palestinian partner for peace," says Mr. Baskin. "It shows that Abbas and the leadership of the PLO today are the best partner Israel could hope for. The basic Israeli demands have been agreed to by the Palestinians. If there is an obstacle to peace its much more on the Israeli side than on the Israeli side."

Proposals more far-reaching under Bush than Clinton

The first handful of documents made public on Sunday offered a fly-on-the-wall protocol of haggling in which peace-process principals like then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat alternate between sarcasm, frustration, and surprise as they discuss positions on borders.

They seem to confirm previous accounts that peace proposals in the final year of the Bush administration were considerably more detailed and far reaching than the talks at Camp David in 2000.

"This is the first time in Palestinian-Israeli history in which such a suggestion is officially made,’’ said Mr. Erekat after presenting Palestinian maps to the Israelis in a May 2008 meeting with Livni that wasn’t attended by a US mediator.

Indeed, the Palestinian offer appears to contradict conventional wisdom in Israel that a generous concession by Ehud Olmert of most of the West Bank and of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem was met by silence from Abbas.

The documents also suggest that Israel and the Palestinian Authority cooperated on Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip two years ago.

In response to the publication, Erekat said the documents published amounted to "lies and half truths,’’ the Associated Press reported.

Palestinians offered citizenship for Jewish settlers

The western-backed Palestinian Authority and Al Jazeera have been at cross hairs in the past, when PA officials accused the Qatar-based network of favoring Hamas.

The documents portray a Palestinian administration eager to strike a deal with Israel in 2008 on borders: land swaps totaling 1.9 percent of the West Bank would allow some 300,000 of the half million Israeli settlers living there to remain under Israeli control. The PA suggested Palestinian citizenship for some settlements left behind.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni balked at the offer, saying that it did not meet Israeli demands because the proposal did not allow Israel to annex some of the biggest settlements. "It does not meet our demands, and it was probably not easy for you to think about, but I really appreciate it,’’ she said.

During the 2008 discussions the Palestinians also surprised the Israelis by offering to allow Jewish settlers on the wrong side of the border to remain in the Palestinian state.

"Can you imagine that I have changed my DNA and accepted a situation in which Jews become citizens having the rights that I and my wife have," asked Erekat. "Can you imagine that this will happen one day?’’

Israeli negotiator Udi Dekel replied, "I do not have such fancy.’’

Olmert offered right of return to 5,000 Palestinians

A summary of an August 2008 meeting indicates Israel presented the Palestinians with a map of their own, which called for annexation of 6.8 percent of the territory in return for Israeli territory equivalent to 5.5 percent of the West Bank.

It also called for the evacuation of 50,000 settlers – about five times more than were involved in the 2005 Gaza withdrawal. Olmert's proposal envisioned allowing 5,000 Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and contribution to a fund to support millions of refugees – a symbolic nod to Palestinian demands that hundreds of thousands who fled or were forced out in the 1948-49 war of independence would be given the right to return.

As late as 2010, after an election brought a new Israeli administration to power, the Palestinians expressed interest in negotiating with Prime Minister Netanyahu.Erekat used the Hebrew word for Jerusalem to offer Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in history."

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