The release on Sunday of a large cache of documents purporting to reveal Palestinian thinking during a decade of negotiations with Israel has already had significant repercussions.
Aside from initial street and diplomatic protests, observers of the region are worried that the documents could have a long-term, negative impact on the Middle East peace process.
“The concern will be that this might cause further problems in moving forward,” says Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “It’s not particularly helpful.”
The documents indicate that the Palestinian Authority was prepared to offer deep concessions on two of the thorniest issues in negotiations with Israel: Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
A senior Palestinian official has accused the Gulf state of Qatar of using its Al-Jazeera TV channel to undermine the West Bank’s Palestinian leadership. Al-Jazeera has published parts of a trove of 1,600 documents along with the British newspaper The Guardian.
Several dozen supporters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attempted to break into Al-Jazeera’s Ramallah office on Monday during a protest triggered by the leak.
The documents include “startling revelations,” NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said Monday on Morning Edition.
But Palestinian officials have questioned the authenticity of the documents. Ahmed Qureia, the chief Palestinian negotiator in the 2008 round of peace talks, told The Associated Press that “many parts of the documents were fabricated, as part of the incitement against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian leadership.”
State Dept. spokesman P.J. Crowley said Sunday in a tweet that the U.S. government is reviewing the documents but “cannot vouch for their veracity.”
The documents suggest that the Palestinians offered historic concessions in the 2008 round of peace talks, offering to allow Israel to annex almost all of the East Jerusalem settlements and breaking from prior insistence that the so-called right of return be extended to all Palestinians.
“There are millions of refugees and their descendants scattered around the Middle East,” Garcia-Navarro said. “The Palestinians basically asked for a token number of them to be allowed back in.”
It’s possible that the Israelis will be seen as intransigent as a result of the leaked documents, because they rejected such concessions as inadequate.
“The documents kill, with great gusto, the myth created by President Bill Clinton that the Palestinians were not a partner at Camp David and that Palestinians were to blame for the lack of a two-state deal,” Amjad Atallah, who directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and was a legal adviser to Palestinian negotiators from 2000 to 2003, wrote on ForeignPolicy.com.
The immediate fallout, though, is likely to land mainly on the Palestinian Authority, which already was facing questions about its standing as a voice for the Palestinian people as a whole.
The PA has almost no presence in Gaza, where Hamas is the dominant political force.
“From what I can tell, this is going to be used as a means to attack the Palestinian Authority by Hamas among others, to say that the PA was selling out the Palestinians’ interests,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank.
Katulis suggests that while there are still questions about the authenticity of the documents, the bigger question is how much the papers will matter in terms of undermining a peace process that has already been stuck for years.
“It certainly doesn’t help, but I don’t know how much it will hurt, because the process has been damaged for so long,” he says.
The True Costs Of Peace
Joshua Muravchik, a self-described supporter of Israel who is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, suggests that while the documents are a short-term blow to the peace process, they could have a salutary effect over the long run.
The Palestinian public, Muravchik says, is being treated to a glimpse of the true costs involved in negotiating for peace. It’s one thing to hold the right of return or Jerusalem sacred. But any final deal is likely to involve real sacrifice from Palestinians, he says.
“It might be a step in the long process of the Palestinian public’s coming to terms with what it would actually mean to have a peace settlement,” Muravchik says.
Walker, the former ambassador and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, says that even if Palestinian negotiators expressed willingness to compromise on the thorniest issues, that doesn’t mean they were ready to give in. The concessions described in the documents could have been akin to trial balloons that were floated during the course of negotiations — not a final position.
Negotiations overseen by the U.S. were always predicated on the notion that nothing was set in concrete until there was a complete agreement, he says.
“It’s part of the negotiation that you get this kind of give and take without any assurance that you can take it to the bank,” Walker says. “There’s no question that, in the give and take of negotiations, there were undoubtedly positions that were far-reaching on the Palestinian side, but they never got anywhere.”
Coming just weeks after the release of hundreds of State Department cables by WikiLeaks, Walker says that the Palestinian leak will cause further damage to the diplomatic project in general.
“If I was ambassador in Israel right now, I would be doing all my work by secure telephone,” he says. “Too bad for future generations: No record.”
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report