Why Palestine papers didn't spark outrage against Abbas's government

But the Palestine papers published by Al Jazeera have further dented Abbas's already low credibility, calling into question his ability to negotiate a lasting peace deal.

Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters
Palestinian Fatah supporters shout slogans during a rally supporting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Nablus Thursday in the wake of documents released by Al Jazeera. The documents, which Al Jazeera has called the 'Palestine Papers,' show Palestinian officials offering big concessions in negotiations on issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees in past rounds of peace talks.

With the winds of anti-government sentiment spreading across the Middle East, Al Jazeera's leak of the Palestine papers this week threatened to undermine the increasingly weak Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The news channel's exposé of far-reaching Palestinian peace concessions to Israel on Jerusalem, refugees, and borders failed to spark outward public outrage, spurring relief among President Abbas' aides. But the muted response of everyone from shopkeepers and businessmen in the West Bank belies a deeper erosion of support for Mr. Abbas, who has staked his career on negotiating peace with Israel.

While the West has embraced Abbas's willingness to make concessions such as those outlined in the recently leaked documents, he has struggled to gain the same credibility in Palestinian eyes as his predecessor Yasser Arafat, the revolutionary guerrilla who fought for a Palestinian state for decades.

Even if he were able to arrive at a peace deal with Israel, his limited street credibility – dented further by the Al Jazeera leak – calls into question his ability to make it stick with people like Ali Ahmed, a grocery shop owner in Ramallah.

"No one has given the Jews as much as [Abbas] gave them in land, in borders and security,'' says Mr. Ahmed. "He gave a lot and gave up the struggle.''

Fewer than 1 in 3 Palestinians support peace talks

After nearly two decades of peace talks failed to yield a state, Palestinians are growing weary of negotiations. Only 27 percent believe there will be a state in five years, according to a December survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. That skepticism prompted Abbas to boycott talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he refused to freeze Israeli settlements.

The failure of the peace process weakens Abbas and his Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority government against Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

The ongoing rift has delayed national elections and fueled an atmosphere of political intimidation: In the same survey, only 27 percent said that West Bankers can criticize the authorities without fear.

Though the Al Jazeera scoop focused mainly on peace talks from 2008, it is liable to erode the public credibility of the Palestinian government in Ramallah, analysts say.

"This is going to have long-term ramifications for the Palestinian leadership because the legitimacy is already in question,'' says Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based businessman and political analyst, "and this is only reinforcing that legitimacy crisis.''

Al Jazeera attack on Abbas?

The Palestinian official reaction has been muddled and defensive. At first officials said the documents were fabricated. Later some officials vouched for the documents, but said that they had been taken out of context by Al Jazeera. Some officials said that the positions detailed in the documents reveal nothing new. They also accused Al Jazeera of serving the agenda of both Hamas and Israel.

In a frenzied appearance Wednesday night on Al Jazeera, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the news channel of slandering him as a collaborator with Israel.

While many Palestinians sided with their leaders, seeing the exposé as an intentional attempt to undermine Fatah, in private many assailed the government for being overly generous to Israel and getting little in return.

"People understand this is an attack, but it is still manipulating minds," says Dalal Salameh, a former legislator from Abbas' Fatah party who came to party headquarters this week to implore Fatah leaders to begin stumping to offset any public backslash. "We want to avoid damage of trust in their leaders and in the opportunities of the negotiations.''

Indeed, the wide gap between the concessions detailed in the Al Jazeera documents and Palestinians' public statements on the heavily symbolic issues risks further erosion of support for President Abbas and the peace talks, say activists and analysts.

'What happened in Tunis will happen here'

To be sure, in public opinion polls, Abbas' approval rating surpasses 50 percent, and he defeats Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh by more than 10 percent. Fatah still beats Hamas as well. But Abbas has never been a man of the masses, and Fatah is viewed as largely corrupt.

In Ramallah's Al Amari refugee camp, an archway marking the entrance of the district declares the camp the "fortress'' of Abbas, but locals ridicule the tribute as evidence of Fatah payoffs.

Down the road at the Amari café, the Al Jazeera reports served as fodder for a debate between Fayez Isaili and his co-proprietor Jamal Abu Rub.

"Abbas has conceded a long time ago'' to Israel, Isaili said. "What happened in Tunis will happen here," he said referring to the street protests in Tunisia.

But Mr. Abu Rub insists that Abbas would resist pressures to make compromises in the negotiations. "Abu Mazen is following in the footsteps of Arafat. Like Arafat he will not concede.''

'We have no other leaders'

Much of the Palestinian discussion focused on Al Jazeera's coverage of the leaks rather than their substance: concessions on Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the right of return for more than a million refugees whose families fled or were forced out of Israel in the war that gave birth to the Jewish states. Those issues are so laden with symbolic weight that many are reluctant to discuss pragmatic compromises that must be at the centerpiece of any peace treaty.

Back in the refugee camp, Fatma Memousa, whose family is originally from Lod, Israel, said she was opposed to Abbas' remark in one document saying the return of millions of refugees to Israel is unrealistic. "[Abbas'] credibility has been shaken on the Palestinian street, but we shouldn't attack him because we have no other leaders.''

And in a produce shop a few feet away, Samara Mahmoud, a teacher who wore a black robe and head covering, was also sympathetic toward Abbas but disagreed with his eschewing of violence – illustrating the dangerous alternative if Abbas's commitment to peace talks fails to bear fruit.

"Why are people unfair to Abu Mazen? Would anyone else be more successful?'' she asks, before adding: "Negotiations are not the solution. An intifada is the only solution."

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