The Palestinians now have their own version of the WikiLeaks scandal.
President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides went on the attack on Monday, accusing the al-Jazeera television station of lies and distortions in publishing the so-called “Palestine Papers”, which claim that Palestinian negotiators were ready to make significant concessions for a peace deal with Israel.
Despite the angry denials, the hunt was on for the leaker.
The new documents indicate 2008 talks made progress on dividing Jerusalem — and the resulting backlash suggests the Palestinian public has not been prepared by their leaders for the far-reaching concessions deemed necessary for a peace agreement.
The Arab satellite station said it obtained hundreds of transcripts and notes from a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It began releasing them in a broadcast on Sunday, the first of four prime-time shows on the documents this week.
On Monday, an angry crowd of about 250 Palestinians gathered outside the West Bank’s main al-Jazeera office, with some smashing the station’s logo and glass panels in the front door.
In the search for the leak, suspicion fell on low-level employees from a support office for Palestinian negotiators. Palestinian intelligence searched computer files in the office on Monday, but it was not clear if any arrests were made.
Abbas dismissed the broadcasts as “shameful”. Members of his inner circle accused al-Jazeera of distorting reality, and said the station and its sponsors in the Qatari government were trying to discredit the Western-backed Palestinian leadership. They suggested the station was promoting the agenda of Abbas’ rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, which opposes negotiations with Israel.
The Palestinian leader’s detractors say Abbas has been misleading the Palestinian public about the extent of the concessions he is willing to make in exchange for an elusive deal with Israel.
The uproar could further weaken Abbas and boost Hamas, with some analysts predicting the nightly revelations may cause serious damage to Abbas’ standing.
Al-Jazeera, citing from the transcripts, said Palestinian leaders agreed to an Israeli annexation of large areas of war-won East Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ would-be capital, and that they were willing to consider a resettlement of only a nominal number of refugees.
The report is bound to inflame Palestinian public opinion, said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
“Palestinian opinion is still quite adamant about Palestinian rights,” she said. Palestinians “are not willing to entertain, if this is true, any of the compromises that were revealed in the documents”.
Negotiations between Abbas and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu are deadlocked, and Netanyahu had no comment on Monday.
The al-Jazeera documents focused on talks with Netanyahu’s more pragmatic predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and indicate the outlines of a possible deal were discussed — confirming previous, less detailed accounts provided by Olmert and Abbas.
In such a deal, a Palestinian state would be established in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East War. Borders would be adjusted to enable Israel to keep some of the largest of the dozens of settlements it built there.
In negotiations in 2008, Abbas and Olmert had made enough progress to haggle over the size of a land swap. The Palestinians offered 1,9% of the West Bank in exchange for an equal amount of Israeli territory. Olmert asked for 6,5%. Those talks ended abruptly in December 2008, when Israel launched its three-week war on Hamas-ruled Gaza, to halt rocket fire from there.
Al-Jazeera says Palestinian negotiators agreed that as part of a land swap, Israel could annex all but one of the Jewish enclaves it has built in East Jerusalem, home to some 200 000 Israelis.
Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said there was “nothing new” in the documents because any partition is likely to be based on parametres set a decade earlier by former president Bill Clinton — which provided that areas settled by Jews in East Jerusalem remain Israeli and Arab neighbourhoods go to Palestine.
Transcripts of two rounds of negotiations in May and June of 2008 were striking in the way they ostensibly showed Palestinian leaders making that concession.
Officials close to the talks confirmed on Monday that a land swap map presented by the Palestinians at the May 4 2008 meeting had Israel annexing all but one of its East Jerusalem enclaves. As part of that proposal, the Palestinians said they refused to let Israel keep several major settlements, including Maaleh Adumim near Jerusalem and Ariel deep inside the West Bank.
‘Right of return’
The June 15 2008 transcript described an exchange between Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, over the fate of particular areas.
“We proposed that Israel annexes all settlements in Jerusalem except Jabal Abu Ghneim [Har Homa],” Qureia is quoted as saying. “This is the first time in history that we make such a proposition.”
Qureia on Sunday denied he said this.
Elliot Abrams, a former senior United States (US) official who participated in the meeting, said he did not recall Qureia making the comment.
“My memory is that when the Palestinians raised Jerusalem, Livni refused to talk about Jerusalem”, because it was so sensitive, Abrams told the Associated Press.
In Monday’s broadcast, al-Jazeera quoted Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as telling a US official the Palestinians demanded the return of “a symbolic number” of refugees. The Palestinians have traditionally demanded a “right of return” for all refugees from the 1948-1949 war that followed Israeli’s creation as well as their descendants — several million people altogether.
Israel says a mass resettlement is out of the question because it would undermine the state’s Jewish majority.
The latest revelations also dealt with Palestinian frustration with the Obama administration, including its refusal — according to the documents — to endorse assurances by George Bush to consider the 1967 border the baseline for negotiations.
Erekat and another Abbas aide, Yasser Abed Rabbo, said al-Jazeera misrepresented Palestinian positions. Abbas said the Palestinian negotiators have nothing to hide and that he has kept Arab leaders updated about all developments in the negotiations with Israel.
An Olmert spokesperson said the al-Jazeera report had many “inaccuracies” but declined to elaborate. Livni, now opposition leader in Parliament, also refused to comment on the specifics, but said her negotiations built “all the foundations” for peace.
Ian Black, Middle East editor at the Guardian newspaper which also published some of the documents, said efforts were made to check their authenticity. The newspaper spoke to officials involved in drawing up the documents as well as diplomats and intelligence officials, he said.
In upcoming broadcasts, al-Jazeera is to present documents on Israeli-Palestinian security coordination and Abbas’ handling of a United Nations investigator’s report on Israel’s Gaza offensive.
Abbas aides, meanwhile, lashed out at Qatar’s rulers, saying they were behind what they described as a campaign to discredit the Palestinian Authority. Qatar-based al-Jazeera, on air since 1996, was bankrolled by the Qatari government and is believed to still receive government funding.
Al-Jazeera and officials in Qatar had no immediate comment. — Sapa-AP