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Mainsteam, Vol XLIX, No 12, March 12, 2011

The Story of ‘Palestine Papers’

Wednesday 16 March 2011, by Sujata Ashwarya Cheema

We didn’t need the leaked Palestine Papers—more than 1600 internal Palestinian documents summarising negotiations with Israel over the past decade—to know that the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is all but dead. The absence of a Palestinian state after nearly twenty years of the peace process hardly tells a different story. What comes shining through from these documents, however, is the courage of the Palestinian leaders in offering far-reaching concessions to their Israeli counterparts to forge a negotiated settlement to the conflict. With meticulously prepared documents and maps, the Palestinian negotiating team detail their stand on three of the thorniest issues: Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem. The Papers would now make it difficult to put the blame for the collapse of the peace process squarely on the Palestinian side, which has been the wont with Israeli and American authorities.

The Al-Jazeera and UK Guardian report that at a meeting in June 2008, the Palestinian negotiators formally offered to allow Israel to annex all Jewish settlements built in occupied East Jerusalem, except Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim) because it disrupted access between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the settlements in the West Bank, the PLO negotiators were understandably much more circumspect. Chief negotiator Ahmed Qurei held that the Palestinians could not agree to the annexation of the major West Bank settlements such as Ariel and Ma’ale Adumin, Givat Zeev and Ephrat—sunk deep into the territory—because they militated against a fair, sensible demographic partition. While conceding the annexation of smaller settlements close to the 1967 border, home to about 302,000 settlers, Israel was offered a land swap of 1.9 per cent in exchange for 1.9 per cent of Israeli land in the north of the West Bank and on the Gaza Strip’s eastern flank. But Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni dismissed the offer out of hand because it did not include Har Homa or the settlements in the West Bank to which the Palestinians objected. The settlements are regarded as illegal under international law and Israel’s 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem had never been recognised internationally.

THE documents also reveal a pragmatic approach taken by the Palestinian negotiators to the refugee issue, one of the most divisive points of contention between the Palestinians and Israelis. Along with their descendants, there are more than four million refugees of the 1948 war. In one of the documents Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been quoted briefing his negotiations advisors in March 2009 as: “On refugees, we said some but not all would return to what is now Israel.” He later added: ”It is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million.” That, he said, “would mean the end of Israel”. Israel, according to Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, in a confidential June 2009 briefing to his staff, had proposed accepting just 1000 refugees per year over 10 years acceding to the Israeli demand, as against the initial Palestinian suggestion of 10,000 a year over 10 years. By taking Israeli concerns into account, the Palestinian leaders displayed a deep sense of recognition and acceptance of the extant realities.

Even for the Haram al-Sharif complex (which also houses the Wailing Wall), or the Noble Sanctuary (the third holiest of the Muslim shrines and a site that has seen much violence between Arab and Jews), Erekat made a ‘creative’ proposal of placing the shrine under international super-vision and thus agreeing to some sort of shared sovereignty over it. This, again, faced Israeli rejection.

In attempting to work out a solution on the contentious issues, the documents reveal that the Palestinian negotiators appeared to be almost desperate for peace in the face non-existent Israeli concession or compromise, throwing light on the huge imbalance of power that characterises the peace process. They also belie the idea that Israel has no Palestinian “partner for peace”. The US role as a ‘dishonest broker’ comes out even more forcefully in these documents. For instance, Condoleezza Rice’s agreement that the 1967 borders will be the baseline for negotiations and territorial swaps was rejected by Obama’s negotiators in an eagerness to satisfy Israeli demands. The Israeli-American collusion to thwart the possibility of two states for two peoples flies in the face of their public avowal of the idea. With the winds of change currently sweeping West Asia, can a change in the Palestinian situation be far behind?

The author is an Assistant Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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