Palestine leak - what they forgot to say

One message stood out from the publication this week of internal documents of the Palestinian negotiation team by Al Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper: Israel had destroyed the best chance that it had ever had of making peace with the Palestinians.

But the claim, that in talks held from late 2008 to early 2009, Israel refused generous territorial and demographic concessions offered by the Palestinians, presents only part of the picture.

There is little doubt about the authenticity of the documents, which appear to reveal that both sides came tantalisingly close to forging a historic agreement on settlements, the right of return and the division of Jerusalem.

But there is scarce mention in the coverage by Al Jazeera or the Guardian of the fact that the talks were doomed by the deteriorating political position of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the key negotiator for the Israeli side.

As one Israeli diplomat said this week: "Crucially, both sides knew that the Israeli government's days were numbered because of the corruption investigations against Olmert which were about to force him to resign. Both sides knew that he was a lame-duck and that a new Israeli government might well not honour the agreements reached under his administration."

These were not the only external factors that prevented an agreement. "Everyone was waiting for George Bush to be replaced by Obama," said the diplomat.

Far from one side ending the negotiations due to an inability to agree, the talks were "a work in progress, and a snapshot from this or that meeting hardly represents the ultimate positions of either side".

Additionally, the leaked documents only cover conversations between chief negotiators Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni, whose discussions formed the official channel for the talks. There was an unofficial channel between Mr Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that is where an agreement would have been reached. Any radical "concessions" made or not made to the Israeli side by Mr Erekat would have been entirely subject to the decisions made in this hidden track.

So what can the Palestine Papers tell us about the peace talks? If anything, they are an affirmation of the basic fact that the formula for a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians is pretty straightforward; the Palestinians relinquish the "right of return" for their refugees, Israel gives up the Jewish settlements in the territory where a Palestinian state is to be
established and both sides reach a functional agreement on east Jerusalem.

The difficult part that remains is to rally public support on either side for this formula. So far, the Palestinian leadership has not even been willing to acknowledge it to its people.

On the Israeli side, in the period during which many of the documents were written, a lame-duck government headed by a prime minister tainted with corruption allegations was about to lose office and in no position to sign a treaty. But, as the papers show, although the present-day talks are going nowhere, the co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces has been continuously improving.

In many ways, the reactions to the leaks have been more instructive than the documents themselves. In Israel, few politicians sought to discredit or downplay the documents. On the centre-left, the documents were taken as a sign that a deal with the Palestinians is possible, and that what is needed is political will on both sides.

For those on the Israeli right, the Palestinian public’s angry response to the documents — and the exposure of failed negotiations contained within them - served as further proof for the futility of the peace process in its current form. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that “the documents prove that even the most left-wing government could not reach an agreement.”

The Palestinian reaction has been much stormier. At first, most of the leaders of the PA tried to claim that the documents were false. When that did not work, they tried attacking the messenger: Mr Abbas accused Al Jazeera of plotting against his government.

In Britain the documents were mainly viewed through the prism of the Guardian. In the Middle East, Al Jazeera framed their interpretation. While the Guardian’s leader-writers praised Mr Abbas for presenting what they described as “difficult concessions”, the Palestinian leaders were roundly condemned on the Arabic news-channel for “betraying” the Palestinian cause.

The anger at Al Jazeera has boiled over into attacks on the channel’s offices, but overall there has been surprisingly limited reaction from the Palestinian street.

On Friday, new excerpts from the memoirs of Mr Olmert are to be published in the Israeli media, in which for this first time he will give his account of the private talks he held with Mr Abbas. Mr Olmert, now on trial for accepting bribes, embezzlement and money-laundering, has said in the past that he offered Mr Abbas 97 per cent of the West Bank for a future Palestinian state but was turned down.

Last updated: 4:03pm, January 27 2011