The closed-door negotiating session in the summer of 2008 was congenial, even chatty, until the chief Palestinian representative pressed his Israeli counterpart on the touchy topic of Jerusalem’s borders.
Silence fell over the conference room in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
“Houston, we have a problem,” quipped Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, breaking the tension.
It was one of several scenes — some tense, some lighthearted — depicted in hundreds of pages of private Palestinian negotiating-team documents leaked since Sunday by Al Jazeera television. The Qatar-based outlet did not say how it obtained the more than 1,600 e-mails, meeting minutes, maps and other confidential papers.
In most cases, the ideas discussed among Palestinians, Israelis and, often, Americans, were nonbinding proposals, not final agreements, that largely mirrored the substance of previously disclosed talks.
But a few surprises have embarrassed the Palestinian Authority, including an unverified report Tuesday that accused a senior Palestinian official of discussing with Israelis the assassination of a Gaza militant in 2005.
More than anything, the dozens of documents released as of Tuesday provide a rare look at the inner workings of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, particularly concerning Palestinians’ positions and possible motivations.
For one thing, the documents show that Palestinian leaders appeared to be far more willing to cut a peace deal than most Israelis, and even many Palestinians, believed.
In contrast with Israelis’ portrayal of Palestinian leaders as rejectionists, the Palestinians come across in the papers as the side better-prepared, with maps, charts and compromises, even broaching controversial trade-offs that went beyond what their own people were probably ready to accept.
Though publicly Palestinians have insisted on a full right of return for refugees, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged in March 2009 that deep concessions would have to be made.
“It is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million [refugees] or, indeed, 1 million,” Abbas is quoted as telling his team.
Though other documents suggest that Abbas rejected a 2008 Israeli offer to accept only 10,000 refugees, one 2008 e-mail from a Palestinian attorney suggested that Abbas was prepared to accept an “extremely low proposal for the number of returnees to Israel.” No figure was stated.
As well, the Palestinians offered in 2008 to allow Israel to annex most of the large Jewish housing developments built around Jerusalem on land seized during the 1967 Middle East War. As part of the offer, Israel would have had to give up comparable land around Jerusalem and agree to evacuate several large West Bank settlements.
Regarding the sensitive question of who will control the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount, which both Jews and Muslims revere, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told U.S. officials on Oct. 21, 2009, that a “creative” solution could be found, perhaps involving an international committee, according to Al Jazeera.
That idea is not new, and Erekat cautioned at the meeting that his vague proposal was being made in a “private capacity,” but it marked the first time a Palestinian is known to have been willing to accept anything less than full control of the holy site. His reported remarks drew quick condemnation from Muslims in the Arab world who fiercely oppose compromise on the issue.
The documents show Palestinians taking a surprisingly tough stance on other issues. As late as 2008, Palestinians were refusing even to consider allowing Israel to annex large West Bank settlements, such as Maale Adumim, Har Homa, Givat Zeev and Ariel, home to more than 80,000 settlers.
For years, most Mideast watchers had presumed that there was a consensus on both sides that those settlements would remain under Israeli control, albeit with land swaps. But in May 2008, former Palestinian Prime Minster Ahmed Qurei told Livni, “We cannot accept this belt of settlements under any circumstances.”
Two months later, during a July 29 meeting in Washington, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Qurei to back down, saying his statements “terrify” Livni. Rice added that no Israeli leader can accept a peace deal that excludes the large settlement blocks.
She appeared to be correct. Livni rejected the Palestinian offer to give up Jerusalem developments in part because it required Israel to give up the West Bank settlements too.
The documents also show the Palestinians for the first time persuading a U.S. president to embrace their call for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.
During a meeting with U.S. envoy George Mitchell on Oct. 1, 2009, Palestinians pushed hard on the issue, but Mitchell expressed skepticism, noting Israeli opposition, according to documents. A month later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton endorsed the “goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps.”
The papers also at times portray Palestinians as almost desperate for a peace deal, hopeful that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will collapse and worried that continued Israeli settlement construction will sap their legitimacy.
“It will finish [Abbas] off,” Erekat told a U.S. diplomat in January 2010, referring to Israel’s housing expansion in Jerusalem. “Our credibility on the ground has never been so low. Now it’s about survival.”