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On the Palestine Papers

5:00 PM, Jan 24, 2011 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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The first thing that should be said about the Guardian and Al Jazeera’s dump of 1,600 documents supposedly belonging to the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unity and supposedly detailing more than a decade of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations is that neither media outlet has said how it authenticated these disclosures. The U.S. State Department and the BBC aren’t so quick to call this a WikiLeaks-like gotcha and there’s no Palestinian Bradley Manning sitting behind bars for leaking sensitive state information. (One rumor I’ve been hearing all day in London is that Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, recently sidelined by the Abbas government, was the culprit.) PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat -- himself a well quoted figure in these documented meetings -- calls the content of the documents “lies and half-truths.” Palestinian Authority spokesman Ahmed Qurei more cautiously says that large parts of them were “fabricated.”  

On the Palestine Papers

Assuming they are true, however, what exactly is revealed?

Substantively, not a whole lot, as Noah Pollak and others have already pointed out. At least not more than what has already been known or assumed about Arab-Israeli negotiations since the Oslo Accords. For instance, it was reported two years ago that in 2008, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert made another generous offer, which would’ve given the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank, a divided Jerusalem according to the Clinton Parameters, a “safe passage” between Gaza and the West Bank, a roughly equal land swap for territories annexed by Israel, and the symbolic reabsorption of about 5,000 Palestinian refugees into Israel.  These documents confirm each point of that deal.

For his part, Erekat is seen to be a much more savvy diplomatic operator behind closed doors than he is in public. He’d have voted for Tzipi Livni for Israeli prime minister, he says at one point in her company. He also tells her that “We are building for you the biggest Yerushalayim in history,” which the Guardian is very keen to explain is the Hebrew word of that much-disputed city, the mere utterance of which will sound “humiliating” to Palestinians, as though it were the equivalent of Martin McGuinness describing the firmness of Queen Elizabeth’s handshake. Erekat even admits -- though this bit somehow didn’t make it into the Guardian’s news reporting on the papers -- that Israelis are more friendly to the two-state solution than Palestinians “sometimes” are, surely a groundbreaking revelation to anyone who’s ever compared Israeli and Palestinian television broadcasts.

What the Palestine Papers do demonstrate is the sanity and pragmatism of the current administration in Ramallah and the difficulty it faces in trying to do a deal that so many non-Palestinian narrative peddlers clearly view with disdain. Not that they will bear the consequences of their opinions; that responsibility, as ever, falls to the Palestinians.

One of the unintended consequences of Obama’s Middle East policy was that it forced Mahmoud Abbas into the awkward position of focusing on everything that didn’t matter and ignoring everything that did, namely Salam Fayyad’s ambitious and exclusively homegrown state-building project, which, entering its second and final year, still represents the best hope for an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. It was said at the time by astute commentators that the head of PLO could not position himself to the right of the American president on settlements. 

Now the European intelligentsia is having its turn. If the PLO sues for peace, then the Guardian will demand its unconditional surrender. Here’s the lead editorial in today’s newspaper, which suggests that the Palestine Papers read like the longest suicide note in history:

“The Palestinian Authority may continue as an employer but, as of today, its legitimacy as negotiators will have all but ended on the Palestinian street. The two-state solution itself could just as swiftly perish with it.”

One gets the feeling that this isn’t so terribly lamented by the editors. 

Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East. 

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