Essay: All in the Papers
Feb 28, 2011 | BICOM
What the leaked “Palestine Papers” really say
The cache of documents from the Palestinian Authority’s Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) published by al-Jazeera and the Guardian in late January provide a fascinating, if partial, insight, on the closed door negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, particularly during the Annapolis negotiations of 2008. What is no less striking, however, is the degree to which both al-Jazeera and the Guardian have pursued an aggressive line in interpreting the documents, to advance a particular narrative that casts Israeli and especially Palestinian negotiators in a harshly negative light.
An informed and dispassionate analysis of the documents themselves, as will be detailed below, does not support the far-reaching and definitive conclusions that al-Jazeera and the Guardian have drawn. The documents themselves represent a partial record of the negotiations as recorded by junior staffers on one side of the talks, and their accuracy is a matter of considerable dispute. However, even if this partial record is considered accurate, the narrative the documents present differs markedly from the one al-Jazeera and the Guardian seek to portray.
In order to advance their particular story, al-Jazeera and the Guardian have had to misread or misrepresent significant portions of the text, omit other key sections, and demonstrate virtually no appreciation for the history of the negotiations. They also have to overlook the gamesmanship, posturing, and tactical rhetoric that are part of any complex negotiating process.
This paper addresses some of the most prominent distortions of the documents that appear in media coverage of these two news organisations. The analysis is drawn from the ‘Palestine Papers’ themselves, though where relevant BICOM has spoken to senior experts in the region with direct experience of these negotiations to assess the accuracy of the interpretation placed on the documents. However, it has been both interesting and troubling to see the extent to which the Guardian’s coverage chimes with that of al-Jazeera both in the timing and choice of headlines and stories, and in interpretations of the documents. [Ed. note: And the extent to which international media coverage, including in Australia, has closely echoed the claims in the Guardian].
The credibility of al-Jazeera, the Qatari owned and influenced media organisation, has long been questioned. It is widely regarded as sympathetic to Hamas and other more extremist forces in the region. It has consistently pursued an editorial line that seeks to undermine the Palestinian Authority (PA), as is evident again in its coverage of these documents. The terms under which al-Jazeera chose to share its scoop with the Guardian, and its reasons for doing so, are unclear. What is clear, however, is that a simple reading of the documents indicates a detailed and serious negotiating process, not an irresponsible one. The documents differ so starkly from the claims made about them that serious questions about journalistic integrity are raised.
Case study: The Jewish state
In its report of Jan. 25 the Guardian claimed that “Palestinian negotiators privately accepted Israel’s demand that it define itself as a Jewish state.” The article states that in a meeting in November 2007, for which they do not provide a reference, Saeb Erekat told then Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, “If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want.” They then quote a minute from an internal NSU meeting in June 2009 in which Erekat says, “This is a non-issue. I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the ‘Great Eternal Historic State of Israel.’ This is their issue, not mine.” The Guardian claims that this indicates private acceptance of Israel’s demand, contradicting their public opposition on the issue.
What the documents actually say and their context
The Guardian report here, which again follows al-Jazeera’s interpretation, is clearly at odds with the text. Nothing here indicates that the Palestinians accepted Israel’s demand that they recognise the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Erekat here is simply echoing a well known Palestinian position, repeated publicly by President Abbas, that from the Palestinian perspective Israel can call itself what it wants but should not expect Palestinians to recognise its Jewish character. While questions may be asked about the wisdom and appropriateness of this Palestinian position, this is an example of the Palestinian consistency, rather than of weakness.
It is worth noting that, should a compromise eventually be reached which included some Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish character, it would not be entirely groundbreaking. On several past occasions, under Arafat’s rule, this position was clearly less objectionable. In a June 2004 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Yasser Arafat was asked explicitly whether he understood that ‘Israel has to keep being a Jewish State’, to which he responded ‘Definitely, definitely, I told them we had accepted [this] openly and officially in 1988.’
Case study: ‘The biggest Yerushalayim’
The Guardian reported on Jan. 23 that Israel “spurned” an offer presented by the Palestinian side regarding Jerusalem. It reports on a document detailing a Palestinian border proposal dated May 4, 2008. The Guardian presents this as a momentous Palestinian concession on Jerusalem, stressing in particular the fact that Saeb Erekat said, “It is no secret that… we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew word for Jerusalem] in history.” The Guardian claims that the Palestinians “proposed that Israel annex all Jewish settlements in Jerusalem except Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim)”. Its report describe Tzipi Livni “dismissing the offer out of hand.”
The editorial line of the Guardian has been to use this example as evidence of “craven” Palestinian concessions and Israeli stone-walling.
What the document actually says, and its context
The documents, once read in detail and in context, suggest neither groundbreaking Palestinian concessions nor Israeli intransigence. They reveal instead a delicate, serious and ongoing effort to bridge gaps on territory in order to advance a two-state deal.
The first point to appreciate is that the Palestinian proposal on Jerusalem, whilst significant, was far from revolutionary. The principle that the Arab areas of Jerusalem would be part of Palestine and the Jewish ones part of Israel has been part of the negotiations since they were presented in the Clinton Parameters in December 2000.
Overall the Palestinian’s territorial proposal was, if anything, a tougher position than some may have expected. The Clinton Parameters proposed 4-6% of the West Bank be annexed to Israel as part of a land swap. The Palestinian offer of 1.9% was considerably less than that. It is also worth noting that the Palestinians have spoken publicly in the past about their 1.9% offer, so what comes out of the documents is not as revelatory as the Guardian claims.
Second, the Palestinian offer does not occur in a vacuum as the Guardian report implies. Rather than Palestinian concession and Israeli rejection, the document gives a partial picture of the midpoint in an ongoing discussion, which started before this meeting and continued afterwards. The Palestinians are presenting a map with a 1.9% land swap, in response to an initial 7.3% map tabled by Israel, upon which the parties continued to work subsequently. A few months later, as shown in another of the leaked papers, then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed to PA President Mahmoud Abbas a 6.8% landswap.
Third, the Israeli side did not “reject” the Palestinian offer presented in this meeting. Livni thanks the Palestinians for the offer and acknowledges that it must have been difficult for the Palestinians to table it. She states that it is unacceptable because of the settlements it excludes. However, she does not reject it “out of hand” as the Guardian claims. Instead she suggests ‘“the experts sit together and discuss the gaps and differences between the two maps.”
Fourth, the claim made by the Guardian that the Palestinian side offered all Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem other than Har Homa is misleading. Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) tries to sell his offer at first by presenting it in this way, but it becomes clear later in the document that the offer does not include numerous other neighbourhoods, such as Givat Ze’ev and Ma’ale Adumim. Furthermore, the Guardian fails to highlight the Palestinian demand in return for their offer – sovereign Israeli territory of equivalent size and quality in the Jerusalem area.
Finally, it is notable how the Guardian misreads the rhetoric of the parties. Erekat’s statement regarding the “biggest Yerushalayim” is little more than a standard negotiating tactic to embellish the significance of the offer and to cast it in terms that the other side may find acceptable. He is not diminishing in any way the Palestinian claim that Jerusalem (al-Quds) must also be the capital of Palestine.
As for the Israeli negotiators, it is hardly surprising that their response is not one of complete and enthusiastic endorsement. Even if the offer was as far-reaching as the Guardian mistakenly claims, their response would not be to completely show their hand, but rather to encourage further dialogue to find common ground.
Case study: “Transfer”
Referring to a minute of a negotiation session of June 21, 2008, the Guardian reports that, “Israeli leaders pressed for the highly controversial transfer of some of their own Arab citizens into a future Palestinian state as part of a land-swap deal.” It links the discussion of June 21, 2008 to a separate discussion six months earlier, in which Livni reportedly told the Palestinians, “The basis for the creation of the state of Israel is that it was created for the Jewish people. Your state will be the answer to all Palestinians, including refugees.” The Guardian then states, “Livni’s implication was that the Palestinian state should be the ‘answer’ for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as millions of refugees and their families who fled or were forced out in 1948.” In so doing the Guardian is implicitly likening Livni’s position to that of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who controversially advocates drawing a border between Israel and the Palestinians on demographic grounds.
What the document actually says and its context
The Guardian has completely distorted Israel’s position in the talks, as a close reading of the document clearly shows. No one on the Israeli side suggests that borders should be drawn to exclude Israeli Arabs from Israel. In fact, the document in question explicitly records the fact that Livni spoke up for the equal rights of Israeli-Arabs in Israel during the meeting.
In the discussion in question, the Israeli side raises the problem of four specific Arab villages which are bisected by the 1949 armistice line (the Green Line). Redrawing the border on the 1967 line – according to Palestinian demands – would have the effect of dividing the villages in two and placing family members on separate sides of the border. The Israeli team is raising a humanitarian and territorial dilemma as to how to deal with this specific problem in the context of border negotiations. Israeli negotiator Udi Dekel mentions that he said previously Israel would consider including the entire villages on the Palestinian side. Abu Ala rejects this suggestion out of hand. Another Israeli negotiator, Tal Becker, then sets out the three options for the villages, saying, ‘We will need to address it somehow. Divided, all Israeli, all Palestinian.’ Livni then moves the discussion on to another topic, leaving the issue open.
The Israeli side are setting out options relating only to the specific problem of certain villages which are divided by the Green Line. This has absolutely nothing to do with Livni’s position that the Palestinian state should be the answer for Palestinian national rights and for refugees, nor with her principled position regarding the equal rights to which all Israelis are entitled.
Case study: Refugee numbers
The Guardian headlines on Jan. 25 included the claim that Palestinian leaders privately “gave up” on refugees and agreed that just 10,000 would return. The article stated:
Erekat said later that Olmert had accepted “1,000 refugees annually for the next 10 years” – a total of 10,000. The Palestine papers do not include any subsequent offer, but Erekat told the US Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in February 2009: “On refugees, the deal is there.” He confirmed the figure later.
Last year, however, Erekat distributed a document to EU diplomats saying the PA had expressed willingness to accept an Israeli proposal to allow in 15,000 refugees…
Abbas, himself a 1948 refugee, privately argued against the large-scale return of refugees in a meeting in March 2009: “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or indeed 1 million,” he told officials. “That would mean the end of Israel.”
What the documents actually say and their context
A correct reading of all the evidence indicates that at the end of the negotiation process, there was in fact still a very significant gap between the sides on refugee numbers, though one that could conceivably be bridged.
The 10,000 figure comes from a document that details minutes of an internal NSU meeting from 2009. Erekat claims that Olmert accepted a figure of 10,000 refugees, but he does not say that this figure was accepted by the Palestinian side. The Guardian claims that Erekat had also circulated a paper in which, “the PA had expressed willingness to accept an Israeli proposal to allow in 15,000 refugees.” The Guardian’s claim is based on a misreading of a Haaretz report about Erekat’s paper. The Haaretz article says the Palestinian were “willing to accept the return of 150,000 Palestinian refugees”, not 15,000 as stated by the Guardian.
BICOM has seen a copy of the paper referred to by Haaretz. It clearly states that at a trilateral meeting in the US State Department on July 30 2008 the Palestinians demanded, “The return to Israel of 15,000 refugees per year [emphasis added] for 10 years, renewable thereafter at the agreement of both parties.” Rather than accepting an Israeli proposal of 15,000 refugees, the Palestinians made an initial demand for 150,000 subject to renewal. Other documents published by the Guardian show the Palestinians were also pursuing other refugee claims, relating to compensation and Israeli acknowledgement of responsibility.
The basis for which the Guardian claims that the Palestinians accepted 10,000 is that Erekat later told George Mitchell “On refugees, the deal is there.” The Guardian claims he confirmed the number later, but presents no evidence for that. The quotation itself only indicates that Erekat believed a deal was possible, not that he had accepted a figure. Here again, the Guardian draws definitive conclusions from a partial record and as a result gets the story completely wrong.
The Guardian implies that the Palestinians’ readiness to compromise on refugees was a secret deal done behind the backs of their public. In fact, Palestinian leaders have spoken openly about the need to compromise on refugees for some time.
Palestinian public reservations to the Clinton Parameters in January 2001 acknowledged that implementation of refugee rights would need to be “flexible and creative” and “accommodate Israeli concerns”.
In an interview with Haaretz in 2008, Abbas acknowledged that the Palestinians would have to compromise on refugees saying: “We understand that if we demand of you that all five million return to Israel, the State of Israel would be destroyed. But we must talk about compromise and see to what numbers you can agree.”
Unnoticed by the Guardian, the debate about refugees has moved on. The Palestinians are not demanding the unrestricted and wholesale right of return and have not done so for some time. For anyone committed to the two-state solution, this position is only reasonable and has long been recognised as a minimum necessity for a peace agreement to be possible.
The Guardian and al-Jazeera try to present a narrative of the Palestinians being weak, subservient, and too ready to compromise, and the Israelis being uncompromising and dismissive. To do so they are compelled to quote selectively from the documents and ignore the detailed history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Downplaying Palestinian steadfastness
The Guardian’s editorial of Jan. 24 described the Palestinian negotiators as “weak, craven and eager to shower their counterparts with compliments.” The Guardian claims that they “conspire to build a puppet state in Palestine, at best authoritarian, at worst a surrogate for an occupying force.” To back up this claim the Guardian has to downplay or disregard numerous examples of the Palestinians standing firm on their positions. There are many examples in the documents, which show Palestinian negotiators rejecting Israeli positions and explaining and defending the Palestinian perspective.
An example of this is the Palestinian response to the Israeli proposal on borders on May 21, 2008. Israel seeks to retain, among other settlements, Ma’ale Adumim. This is a large settlement to the east of Jerusalem considered strategically important for Israel and too large to evacuate. In the Clinton Parameters, the Taba talks, and the Geneva Accords, Israel retained Maale Adumim. This led many to assume that the Palestinians would concede it in a final status deal. However the Palestinians rejected this. Abu Ala told the Israelis, “Actually, when I see your map [including Ma’ale Adumim and other settlement blocs rejected by the Palestinians] I advise you to go to Syria [first]. It will help us. We cannot accept Ma’ale Adumim, Giva’at Ze’ev and Ariel… If this is your proposal, let us wait, I am serious.”
In the same meeting the Palestinians complained that the Israeli border proposal unnecessarily sought to annex open areas around the built up areas of some settlements. Livni then appears to acknowledge their concern, saying, “now I have a better understanding of something than I did before”. The two sides conclude by agreeing to have experts look together at the issues on a “needs-based approach.” On this occasion it is the Palestinians who stand their ground, and the Israelis who hint at compromise.
The simplistic analysis in the Guardian does not reflect what is actually happening in the room. Repeatedly in the documents, we see Palestinian negotiators rejecting Israeli positions whilst explaining and defending the Palestinian perspective.
Downplaying Israeli proposals
Numerous examples from the documents belie the story of Israeli stone-walling. Both sides in the negotiations can be seen to be engaging seriously in the issues at hand. But whilst Palestinian negotiation positions are turned into splash headlines, constructive Israeli proposals are almost completely ignored. The Olmert offer of Aug. 31, 2008 is included in the papers published by the Guardian, but barely reported. It details very significant Israeli proposals including:
Equivalent of almost 100% of the West Bank to the Palestinians (including landswaps).
Readiness to divide Jerusalem and open up the question of sovereignty in the holy basin (the holiest site in the world for Jews) to an international committee including the US,Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Readiness to formally acknowledge the suffering of refugees (though not Israeli responsibility), to allow a limited number of refugees to return, and to provide compensation.
The Guardian coverage similarly ignores other examples in the documents of progress and Israeli flexibility. For instance, Israel’s initial territorial offer is obscured. The stock taking of progress on issues as varied as state-to-state relations, culture of peace, water, the future of the settlements and others is largely ignored. The general tenor of the discussions which reveal true engagement by both sides is neglected by the Guardian as apparently inconvenient to the narrative it has chosen to present.
Ignoring historical context
In creating a distorted picture of the negotiations, and in sensationalising the revelations, al-Jazeera and Guardian reporting presents as new, many positions which have long been part of the negotiating process. It is surprising the extent to which the journalists involved fail to refer to this well documented historical context.
Ideas for final status issues have been floated informally and formally by leaders on both sides since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993. From the Camp David Summit in July 2000 until the Taba Summit in January 2001, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators worked intensively on final status proposals. A framework for agreement based on these negotiations was tabled by President Clinton in December 2000. That framework was accepted at the time by the outgoing Israeli government of Ehud Barak as a basis for negotiations. It was rejected by the Palestinians under Yasser Arafat.
However, some members of the negotiation teams continued to work on closing the gaps and signed the unofficial Geneva Accords in 2003. These accords have been widely publicised among both Israelis and Palestinians and the compromises entailed in the Clinton Parameters and the Geneva Accords are widely known.
Given the context, the shock expressed by the Guardian that the Palestinians be considering such compromises, and their characterisation of those concessions as selling out, is misplaced.
Lack of familiarity with the reality of negotiations
In addition to the documents themselves, BICOM’s discussions with former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators provide an insight into the real character of the talks which are vital for correctly interpreting these documents.
According to BICOM sources, these records are not only the notes of just one side, they also do not include a record of many of the most significant meetings that took place. Due to the sensitivity of the issues, key meetings are traditionally dealt with in one-on-one, or two-on-two, meetings between the most senior officials.
Moreover, the reporting of the Guardian fails to take any account of the gamesmanship and tactics involved in negotiations, especially complex negotiations of this kind. The negotiators are not robots. They are human beings interacting with counterparts who they have come to know, in some cases for many years. Each side is employing every negotiating tactic it can to gain leverage and improve their position.
They employ many tactics to avoid revealing their hand too early and making unnecessary concessions. Many of the comments in the documents are presented in the al-Jazeera and Guardian reports as “official negotiating positions”. Read in context it becomes clear that they are often select comments said in humour, sarcastically, as part of the gamesmanship at the table, or to test the other side.
Some in the Guardian appear to have a perception of what the basis of an agreement should be which is out of touch with the reality of where an agreement can actually be reached. They seem outraged by concessions long regarded as necessary for a two-state solution. They also seem desperate to portray statements in a negative light, regardless of the context and actual words, which often tell a different story.
At no point since Oslo has anyone thought that a final status accord is possible without the kinds of compromises envisaged in these negotiations. As such, describing the Palestinians as ‘craven’ on the basis of the concessions described here is a mistaken reading of the evidence.
Seen in their proper context, the real story of the negotiations that seems to come out of these documents is not all that remarkable. It is a partial account of an effort on both sides to explore ways to reach an agreement that was cut short by Israeli elections and Operation Cast Lead. It tells us that in negotiations many things are said, often for tactical or political reasons, but it is hard to discern from partial records the exact nature of what was and was not agreed. Both sides sought to advance their interests, but showed a willingness to explore compromises. Surely, these efforts should be encouraged rather than sneered upon. One can only hope that the possibility of agreement that these documents indicate is not drowned out by the misleading and callous reporting about them.
© British-Israel Communication and Research Centre (BICOM). Reprinted by Permission. All rights reserved.