Leaks shake up Israeli-Palestinian balance
By Victor Kotsev
TEL AVIV - "Al-Jazeera has declared war on the Palestinians," a senior
Palestinian Authority official proclaimed in front of Israeli daily The
Jerusalem Post on Sunday. "This station serves the interests of the enemies of
the Palestinians." He even raised the possibility that the Qatar-based news
network might be banned from operating in the West Bank in the future.
These were some of the first comments that greeted al-Jazeera's reports on the
so-called "Palestine Papers" : about 1,600 confidential documents related to
the past decade of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Among other
revelations, in June 2008, Palestinian negotiators reportedly agreed in secret
to let Israel annex almost all of East Jerusalem (excluding Har Homa
and the large nearby settlement of Ma'ale Adumim) and to settle with a
"symbolic number" of Palestinian refugees from 1948 (according to The New York
Times, 100,000 over a period of 10 years) returning to Israel as a fulfillment
of the right of return.
The papers, many of which are expected to be published soon, dropped a
bombshell on the Palestinian Authority and Israel. This is the first time such
far-reaching Palestinian concessions have been revealed in public. By contrast,
officially the Palestinian Authority has insisted on all areas with
predominantly Jewish population beyond the Green Line (including French Hill,
Pisgat Ze'ev, Neve Ya'akov, Ramat Shlomo and Gilo) and on the right of return
of several million Palestinian refugees and their descendents to Israel
(something that is unacceptable to the Israelis at it would threaten the Jewish
character of their state).
The documents appear to be mostly records and transcripts from meetings between
Israeli, Palestinian and American officials, put together by the Palestinian
negotiation support unit. According to British newspaper the Guardian, which
shared the exclusive access to the papers and compiled its own series on them,
 "[They] were leaked over a period of months from several sources to
al-Jazeera. The bulk of them have been independently authenticated for the
Guardian by former participants in the talks and by diplomatic and intelligence
The precise consequences of the leak are hard to gauge yet, but the Palestinian
Authority (PA) will take a blow - at least in the eyes of the proverbial
Palestinian street. According to Palestinian news agency Maan, "[Hamas
strongman in Gaza] Muhammad Zahhar said PA officials should be ashamed of
themselves, and should hide themselves from the Palestinian public."
In their first reactions, PA leaders sought to downplay and deny the reports.
"This is a theater," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (who features
prominently in the leaks) 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." He claimed that Abbas had rejected territorial
concessions in Jerusalem, and affirmed the official line. "East Jerusalem is
the capital of the Palestinian state," Erekat announced. "All of east
However, while it is likely that the release will hamper the Palestinian
efforts to mount an efficient offensive against Israeli settlement construction
at the Security Council, it is short-sighted to brand it a victory for Israel.
For the Jewish state, it will mean increased international pressure, at a time
when its isolation is growing and its diplomats find themselves increasingly on
the defensive. A major claim that Israeli leaders have used to reject
concessions to the Palestinians is that "there is no peace partner". If
anything, the leaks suggest exactly the opposite.
Domestic pressure would also mount, as the Israeli left is currently trying to
reorganize itself, and may attempt to use this issue as a rallying point.
Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is not implicated in
some of the most dramatic revelations, it will have to participate in the
soul-searching that will almost certainly ensue when many Israelis ask
themselves: if we were offered so much, how could we refuse?
It is hard to swallow, in particular, the response of opposition leader Tzipi
Livni, then-foreign minister, to Erekat's unprecedented offer: "We do not like
this suggestion because it does not meet our demands [for additional
territories] .. and probably it was not easy for you to think about it, but I
really appreciate it." The apparently fake expression of care adds insult to
There are certainly mitigating circumstances: at the time Erekat made the
offer, the government of which Livni was a part was nearing the end of its
term, the Palestinian negotiators would have had a hard time selling the
concessions to their people, and the possibility then an agreement could
actually be implemented seemed remote. In fact, it is possible that when he
made the offer, Erekat was counting exactly on that, and was quite simply
bluffing. Still, if the latter is true, the Palestinian negotiator made a
brilliant bluff, and it will be very hard for the Israeli government to avoid
the bad publicity resulting from this exchange.
Netanyahu, moreover, may be personally accountable. According to a report by
Israeli journalist Carlo Strenger, the current Israeli government refused to
even open a recent Palestinian offer.  The Palestinian Authority may use all
this to try to mitigate the domestic impact of the release: it could claim - or
insinuate - that the offers were a bluff. If Israel suffers an embarrassment,
and the PA can show that the Palestinian people ultimately benefited, their
case would be strengthened.
The irony would be that if this happens, the Palestinian leaders would have to
maintain a characteristic double-speak, claiming for domestic audiences that
they were bluffing all along while keeping a straight face in front of the
international community. But in Middle-Eastern negotiations, this is nothing
This is also the context for the recent debates in the Israeli government
whether to seek an interim agreement.  According to Israeli analyst Aluf
Benn (notably writing before the al-Jazeera reports), "a provisional
Palestinian state is Netanyahu's best bet [to counter international pressure]".
Benn argues: "One option is to adopt the concept advanced by the Reut
Institute, under which Israel would upgrade the PA's political status and
recognize it as an independent state within its existing borders ... This
concept is built into the second phase of the so-called 'Road Map', which
called for the creation of a Palestinian state within provisional borders."
It is hard to determine who the sources of the leaks were, what the motivation
behind was, and how they will impact the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
They could have come from a rogue Palestinian actor or group (this is
consistent with using al-Jazeera and the Guardian), but they could also have
been acquired and released by an external actor. As for the latter two
questions, there are two distinct possibilities, which, on a closer look, are
not mutually exclusive.
On the one hand, they could be (or become) part of the blame game following the
collapsed negotiations. This would signal a true end for the current round of
peace efforts - which even some committed peace activists have characterized as
stillborn. On the other hand, however, the leaks could be (or serve as) a
desperate attempt to kick-start the negotiations, by shaking up the status quo
and forcing both sides to make decisions and take actions. They clearly
demonstrate that the gaps are not as wide as previously thought, and bring into
focus issues that are central to the conflict, yet so far were too embarrassing
for both sides to openly talk about.
If the initial shock is managed correctly, they could even prove invaluable to
the peace efforts of the Barack Obama administration. At the very least, the
revelations would throw both sides off-balance and impede their ability to
deliver unpleasant surprises.