x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ramallah disappointed and dismayed at 'Palestinian Papers' revelations

The 1,600 leaked documents, mostly memoranda written by the Negotiations Support Unit of the PLO, point to a wide gulf between Mahmoud Abbas and his close aides on the one hand and ordinary Palestinians on the other.

RAMALLAH // For George Massad, 41, the Palestinians will have to make significant concessions to end their conflict with Israel.

But when it comes to Jerusalem, he is wary of giving too much. So the portrayal of Palestinian leaders that emerges from confidential documents leaked to Al Jazeera television has dismayed him. The officials - Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, Ahmed Qurei, in particular - seem to bend over backwards for Israel and acquiesce to its demands for control of the holy city.

In a meeting Israeli negotiators at the King David hotel in Jerusalem in May 2008, for example, Mr Qurei, a former Palestinian prime minister, made an offer unparalleled in the nearly two decades of Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations: agreeing to Israel's annexation of all its settlements in East Jerusalem except one, Har Homa.

But Israel's foreign minister at the time, Tzipi Livni, still was unsatisfied with the offer, apparently because of Har Homa's exclusion. Palestinian leaders also seemed willing to settle the right-of-return issue by agreeing to return marginal numbers of refuges to Israel, and without Israel acknowledging whether it had inflicted injustice on them.

"You know, Al Aqsa is a sacred place to Palestinians," said Mr Massad, a mobile phone salesman from Ramallah, referring to the mosque that is considered the third holiest place in Islam. "That's dangerous," he said. "That's an explosive issue."

Indeed, a visit 11 years ago to the plaza surrounding the mosque by the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, ignited the second intifada and years of bloodletting between Israel and the Palestinians.

However, while the disclosures in the documents are currently the topic of discussion at Ramallah's coffee shops, they come as little surprise to Mr Massad and other Palestinians.

They know about the co-operation between Israel and the security forces of Palestinian Authority (PA), especially in operations against Hamas, which controls of the Gaza Strip and has followers in the PA-governed West Bank.

"What do you expect? This is the Middle East. This is the politics that we're used to," said Sami, a 35-year-old worker at Ramallah's Nefertiti restaurant who would only give his first name.

The 1,600 leaked documents, mostly memoranda written by the Negotiations Support Unit of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, point to a wide gulf between Mr Abbas and his close aides on the one hand, and ordinary Palestinians on the other.

Some have reacted angrily to their leaders' apparent willingness to cede so much to Israel without their consent - and for so little in return. As a result, many people are demanding resignations.

Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian negotiator, told Britain's The Guardian newspaper that Mr Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, "must step down and if he doesn't it will only serve to show just how out of touch and unrepresentative the negotiators are".

In the documents, Mr Erekat and Mr Qurei come across as grovelling and incapable of winning concessions, let alone reciprocal gestures, from their Israeli counterparts.

"I would vote for you," Mr Qurei told Mrs Livni during another meeting at the King David Hotel in June 2008. The Israeli leader and her party, Kadima, were to soon take part in elections.

In a statement released yesterday, Mr Erekat said the reports "misrepresented our positions, taking statements and facts out of context. Other allegations circulated in the media have been patently false".

He added that "any accurate representation of our positions will show that we have consistently stood by our people's basic rights and international legal principles".

Mr Abbas also disputed the accuracy of the documents.

Hamas officials, however, have no doubt about their rivals' alleged machinations, and have used the documents to liken Mr Abbas and his allies to traitors.

"They should not only be fired but evicted from our land because they are no longer Palestinian," said Ihab Al Ghusain, a spokesman for the Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza.

"They are more Israeli than the Israelis themselves."

Among the more moderate voices, the documents seem to give added credibility to the increasingly popular idea of abandoning negotiations with Israel altogether.

Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian politician, said the documents proved negotiations were futile.

"What has been leaked is proof that negotiations are useless," he said. "Without a change in the balance of power, nothing will happen."

Israel was too strong and also uncompromising for talks to yield acceptable results, he said. "The problem is that Israel is too powerful, so the Palestinians now need a new strategy and to form a united position in order to get their rights."

Yet that imbalance, and Israel's apparent willingness to exploit it, may, in fact, work to the advantage of Mr Abbas and the PA, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University.

"From the perspective of the international community," he said, "the documents reflect well on Abbas and the negotiators, and very badly on Israel."

"From abroad, you see how much the Palestinians were willing to concede, and it's clear that the blame for things falls squarely on Israel," he said.

Yet, he added, this would not likely budge Israel's far-right coalition into a more conciliatory position with the Palestinians.

Many believe that is the job of the United States, a longtime mediator of Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

Even so, the leaked documents seem to highlight an overly close relationship between the US and Israel and their officials' generally condescending attitude toward the Palestinian negotiators.

For Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent Palestinian politician, the documents only serve to highlight the difficulty that Palestinians face when negotiating, up against the powerful US-Israel alliance.

"It's known that the American role has always favoured Israel, and now it's become all the more obvious," she said.

Not everyone was so pessimistic. A barber standing outside his shop in Ramallah yesterday defended Mr Abbas and expressed hope that he could still deliver the Palestinians a state.

"I'm a refugee from Jaffa," said the man, 60, who gave his name as Abu Habib. "What do all these people on the outside know us? How can they know how we feel? We are a big family, and we have to trust that Abbas will find us, the family, a state."

hnaylor@thenational.ae