Al Jazeera says it has a trove of more than 1,600 memos, diplomatic dispatches, and internal notes from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the past decade. Al Jazeera, which isn't saying where it got the documents, started to release stories based on them yesterday afternoon and will carry on until the 26th. It has also shared the documents with The Guardian, which is running some of its own coverage.
The immediate effect has been a WikiLeaks-like explosion of media commentary and public fascination in the Middle East, with the curtain pulled back on how the diplomatic sausage is being made. From the Arab and Palestinian publics' perspective, the documents – which Palestinian Authority leaders say are mostly forgeries – are deeply unflattering to Mahmoud Abbas and his senior negotiators, with private offers of major compromises over the status of East Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees that went nowhere and starkly contradict their public positions.
Correspondent Josh Mitnick wrote in the Monitor today that the release is likely to be damaging to Abbas' own standing.
"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.’’
Driving that point home is the current design of the Al Jazeera homepage for the documents and commentary related to them. The visitor is greeted by a large picture of chief Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat next to a quote attributed to him from a 2008 meeting with then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "We are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history," Mr. Erekat allegedly told her, using the Hebrew word for the holy city, as he promised to give away all but one Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem.
Ms. Livni's response? "We do not like this suggestion because it does not meet our demands, and probably it was not easy for you to think about it, but I really appreciate it." Livni said only an agreement to give up the remaining East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa and the settlements of Ma'ale Adumim and Ariel in the West Bank would be sufficient.
If true, the exchange is deeply embarrassing for Erekat, and also shows the practical impotence of Palestinian leaders in a peace dance in which they hold little of the leverage. Erekat and other senior Palestinian negotiators have been publicly adamant that ongoing construction in the East Jerusalem settlements makes a direct peace process impossible. How can that be squared with private assurances that they're willing to let them go?
For the Palestinian public, the optics of the meeting and Erekat's use of the Hebrew word for the city that the Palestinians, too, claim for their capital, is likely to be taken as a public humiliation. If the documents are indeed accurate, they're a step well beyond the private US diplomatic cables that have been trickling out of WikiLeaks in recent months. Rather than the opinions and summaries of diplomats, they're filled with intimate details of high-level negotiations over the region's most explosive conflict.
Of course, senior PLO leader Yasser Abed Rabbo alleges Al Jazeera has faked the documents. "We did not agree to any proposal regarding east Jerusalem. The only position to which we adhere is Abbas' position that east Jerusalem, according to the 67 borders, belongs to us... Al-Jazeera decided that it would attack the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to harm it."
Erekat said "this is part of a campaign targeting President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA at a time when we are going to the UN Security Council regarding the settlements" and also denied that any major concessions in East Jerusalem were offered.
What comes next is always the big question. At best, a monkey wrench has been thrown into efforts to revive the peace process, but not frozen the machinery completely. Or, it could lead to a major political realignment in the West Bank, bolster Hamas' standing in the eyes of Palestinians as more principled than their antagonists in the PA, and encourage those on the Israeli side that take a maximalist approach to land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Robert Grenier, a former senior CIA official, writes for Al Jazeera, that "the overwhelming conclusion one draws from this record is that the process for a two-state solution is essentially over, that the history of the peace process is one of abject failure for all concerned."
"As an American, the reaction I draw, frankly, is one of shame. My government has consistently followed the path of least resistance and of short-term political expediency, at the cost of decency, justice, and our clear, long-term interests. More pointedly, The Palestine Papers reveal us to have alternatively demanded and encouraged the Palestinian participants to take disproportionate risks for a negotiated settlement, and then to have refused to extend ourselves to help them achieve it, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. The Palestine Papers, in my view, further document an American legacy of ignominy in Palestine."
Politicians are already hastening to make hay. Israel's hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the documents, which portray a Palestinian Authority bending over backwards for peace, are evidence that everyone should do what he wants them to do. He argues that a permanent deal isn't possible now at all and wants an interim arrangement that gives the Palestinians about 50 percent of the West Bank.
"While the leaked documents on Middle East negotiations are received in Israel and in the world as incisive evidence of the moderate positions of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Hamas leadership as well as Abbas' rivals in Fatah will see the documents as additional proof of what they call the "defeatism" of the PA... 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.
I'll be following this throughout the day. One immediate, not particularly surprising impact? Al Jazeera English correspondent Alan Fisher says on his Twitter feed that Palestinian security forces have entered the news services Ramallah office in the past hour.