Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The leaked Palestine Papers – round two

Many a true word is spoken in jest.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they remain the same) is a witty epigram from the pen of one-time editor of Le Figaro, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. It sums up the feeling of déja vu generated by the flurry of excitement over Mahmoud Abbas’s recent interview on Israel’s TV Channel Two.

The President of the Palestinian Authority was born in Safed, in northern Galilee. In 1948 he and his family left for Syria during the Israel-Arab conflict. During the TV interview Abbas said that he had visited Safed once − “but I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it. But not to live there.”

The Palestinians have long demanded that Israel grant the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians to land and property situated in Israel that they or their families lived on prior to 1948. Abbas’s comments during the interview have been generally regarded as a more flexible stance on the issue.

Israel’s President Shimon Peres commented that his “courageous words prove that Israel has a real partner for peace.” Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, said that his words “should prove to the Israeli public that we do have someone to talk to and we can negotiate.” Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said: “these are the statements we heard in the negotiating room.”

What Tzipi Livni was referring to, and what all three had in mind, were the years of painstaking step-by-step negotiations that culminated in the oh-so-near agreement of 2008 between then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas – the innermost details of which were revealed to the world when a huge collection of secret documents suddenly became public in January 2011. They became known as the “Palestine Papers”.

Between 23 and 26 January 2011 thousands of secret documents, generated during peace talks between IsraeI and the Palestinians over the ten years 1999 to 2010, were published by Al-Jazeera. In order to protect its source, Al-Jazeera redacted sensitive portions, but it was strongly suspected that the whole cache of nearly 1,700 files − which included minutes of meetings, e-mails, 153 reports, 54 maps and no less than 64 draft agreements − had been leaked to Al-Jazeera by a former disgruntled member of the Negotiations Support Unit headed by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The documents obtained by Al-Jazeera were shared in advance of publication with the UK newspaper The Guardian − notorious for its anti-Israel stance − in an effort to ensure the wider availability of their content. Taken as a whole, the leaked papers revealed how far negotiations had gone in reaching agreement on the major issues at stake for both parties. In particular, perhaps, they demonstrated that the realistic two-state solution under consideration had largely settled the border issue and superseded the call for “a right of return” of some 5 million Palestinians.

The Guardian chose to portray the slow, painstaking process of negotiating a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a major betrayal of the Palestinian cause. It went to town castigating the Palestinian leadership as “weak and craven” for offering concession after concession to the Israelis, surrendering “land which the Palestinians have lived on for centuries.”

“Plus ça change…” The Guardian’s take on Mahmoud Abbas’s recent TV interview was to repeat the charge that the Palestinian cause was being betrayed. Their headline read: “Mahmoud Abbas outrages Palestinian refugees by waiving his right of return,” and their story was accompanied by a picture of a giant Abbas photograph being burned by so-called “Palestinian refugees”, though the five indistinct figures portrayed do not appear particularly outraged.

The newspaper asserts that “the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is facing widespread condemnation and anger in the Palestinian territories and abroad after he publicly waived his right to return to live in the town from which his family was forced to flee in 1948.”

To counter Abbas’s further statement: “I believe that the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and the other parts are Israel,” the Guardian quotes Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas ruler in Gaza: "No one has the right, whoever he is … to give up an inch of Palestinian land," and Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, who said the president's statement did "not represent in any way the views of the Palestinian people".

Condemned for procrastinating and condemned for acting, castigated as hard-line and castigated for softening his line, harried by activists in the West Bank and harried by Hamas in Gaza, it seems as though Abbas simply cannot do the right thing. There is always some vested interest that will never be satisfied. Perhaps that’s part of what makes the Palestine-Israel dispute one of the most intractable in modern history.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 8 November 2012:

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