Until scholars have had the opportunity to study the 1,600 documents purporting to reflect years of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials, which were leaked this week by the Al Jazeera cable news channel, the effect those documents will have on the ongoing Mideast peace process will remain in question.
Still, there is speculation that, if the documents are accurate, longstanding public perceptions could be shattered.
Some of the documents reveal that during the 2008 round of talks, the Palestinian Authority was willing to concede much more to Israel than it was acknowledged publicly, including giving up the so-called “right of return” for a strict limit on the number of refugees to be absorbed by Israel, as well as giving up its claim to almost all of the East Jerusalem settlements.
Some Palestinian officials have denied the authenticity of the documents, and have accused the Gulf state of Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, of using the channel to weaken the West Bank’s Palestinian leadership. The British newspaper, The Guardian, published parts of the documents as well.
The Palestinian Authority has almost no presence in Gaza, where rival group Hamas is the dominant political force.
If all, or many, of the documents reflect the actual negotiating positions of the Palestinian Authority, the revelations could pose problems for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. His administration could be perceived by the Palestinian street as weak, and being willing to sell out their constituents.
Moreover, Israel’s longtime claim that it has no true Palestinian partner in the peace process could come into question.
“I don’t know whether anyone will come out looking good here,” said Laurie Eisenberg, professor of history, specializing in the modern Middle East, at Carnegie Mellon University. “It appears that Abbas was much more forthcoming in the negotiations with the Israelis then they let anyone believe.”
While the documents indicate that the Palestinian Authority offered some “far-reaching concession points,” Eisenberg said, “it had failed to prepare its constituents to make compromises, such as for the so-called ‘right of return.’ ”
“The right of return has been a deal breaker for the Palestinians for awhile,” Eisenberg said. “Now [the leaders of the P.A.] look kind of stark naked in front of the Palestinian constituency, and it will be angry they were willing to compromise. They will face the wrath of the people, and it will be a problem for them. To the extent the Palestinian Authority seems to be working with Israel against Hamas, it will be a difficult point to explain away. To actively cooperate with Israel against a brethren Palestinian group is tricky.”
The content of the leaked documents, if proven authentic, “could also cut sharply against Israel,” Eisenberg said. Israeli leadership could have a problem “if the Israelis believe that a peace deal was within reach and the government walked away from it.”
“Ever since 2000, Camp David II, there has been a mantra that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, that there is no partner to make concessions. That has been the party line for quite some time,” Eisenberg said. “Israelis could be upset to find there was a partner for peace, but Israel walked away.”
“Of course,” she continued, “that begs the question: what if Israel had accepted the Palestinian Authority’s bluff? Once the P.A. went public with its concessions, would it be in better shape with its constituency than it is now?”
Because the veracity of the documents has been called into question, some local Middle East observers believe it is too early to second-guess their significance.
“I don’t think [the release of the documents] is a big deal,” said Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh District. “There is nothing to verify the information as accurate. All the documents are Palestinian; no documents are Israeli. They seem to be unsubstantiated and incongruent with everything we’ve heard over the last few years.”
Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, declined to comment in light of the current lack of verification of the documents’ authenticity.
If, however, the documents are genuine reflections of what went on during those years of negotiations, “the potential ramifications could be very big,” Eisenberg said.
“What if the Palestinian Authority is driven from power? What if they’re de-legitimized and they are not the people calling the shots anymore?” Eisenberg queried. “Then we have a whole new vista.”
Accepting the documents as evidence of a Palestinian willingness to negotiate seriously, J Street press secretary, Amy Spitalnick, believes the leak should serve as an impetus for more effective U.S. involvement in the peace process.
“I think it’s fair to assume that they (the Palestinians) are willing to make some if not all the concessions laid out in the documents,” Spitalnick said. “There is a willingness to talk about the core issues at hand.
“I don’t want the papers to be used as a blame game, but as an incentive for the United States to step up and fill the vacuum [in the peace negotiations] that the documents underscore. We know what an outline [for peace] looks like,” she continued. “It’s really about having the wherewithal to have the courage to put it there. And it’s not going to happen without the United States. Left to their own devices, the parties are not going to get there on their own. We’ve seen what hasn’t worked. Now there needs to be a bolder, more assertive effort.”
The Israeli government has had no official comment on the documents’ release.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)