Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is Mahmoud Abbas really a 'partner for peace'?

Is Mahmoud Abbas really a 'partner for peace'?

Despite President Shimon Peres' praise of the Palestinian Authority leader's peacemaking credentials, leaked documents show he took pains to ignore generous Israeli peace plan and instructed people "not to offer a response that couldn't be walked back." 

Shlomo Cesana and Daniel Siryoti

Despite the accepted narrative, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's resignation was not the reason why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held back on responding to his peace offer. | Photo credit: GPO

This week President Shimon Peres urged the Israeli government to embrace Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him a "partner for peace." But a renewed look at the so-called Palestine Papers that were leaked about a year ago paints a completely different picture of the Palestinian leader.

The documents, which detail the behind-the-scenes deliberations on the Palestinian side between 1999 and 2010 over the peace process, were obtained by the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera last January, although their content was partially exposed by WikiLeaks before that. Through these documents, one can also learn how far the Israeli leaders were willing to go in the negotiations and how their peace proposals were received by the other party. In light of Peres' comments, Israel Hayom has revisited the controversial aspects of the Palestine Papers .

The documents show that when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert put on the table what was then the most far-reaching peace offer [somewhere between 2006 and 2008], Abbas told his negotiating team "not to commit to any counteroffer lest the Palestinians be bound to it."

The papers suggest that the two parties ironed out numerous details of a would-be permanent status agreement until Olmert handed Abbas a comprehensive peace proposal. While the accepted narrative is that Abbas had no time to respond because Olmert was forced to resign in the wake of corruption allegations in 2008, the papers tell a different story: Abbas had no intention of responding to the offer in the first place.

In September 2008, the Palestinians' chief negotiator Saeb Erekat met with his team and reviewed three possible responses. The first was a counter offer that included a map. It would be presented to the Israeli counterparts but they would not be allowed to hold on to it. The second option was to provide an evasive answer or to equivocate. The final option was a flat-out rejection. Shortly after the documents were leaked, Erekat announced his departure, although his resignation has yet to take effect.

Erekat, the papers show, told his colleagues to consider a fourth response. They were to formulate it in such a way that would ensure the Palestinians would not be blamed for rejecting a possible deal. In addition, the response was to include a call for further negotiations on unresolved issues. And above all, the response was to be easily walked back should the need arose.

The Israeli plan promised the Palestinians 98% of the so-called occupied territories. Its language did not declare an end to the conflict and it had no provisions guaranteeing that no further claims would be made by either side. Contrary to the many media reports, Olmert's plan did not envision an international entity that would govern the Temple Mount area in Jerusalem, what is known as the Holy Basin (including the Western Wall, Mount of Olives and Jewish Quarter). Instead, Olmert wanted to have the issue left out of an agreement. It was to be resolved through further negotiations that would involve Palestinian, Israeli, U.S., Saudi and Egyptian teams, but any compromise would have to be accepted by Israel and the Palestinian Authority and would not be imposed by third parties.

Officials in Ramallah declined to comment Monday on the Palestine Papers. However, a senior official at Abbas' bureau told Israel Hayom that they were nothing more than internal correspondence of various low-level officials and cannot be considered authoritative, particularly when it comes to the specific diplomatic strategy pursued by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority.

"We are convinced that the mentioned documents are now suddenly revisited just before the elections [in Israel] because of President Peres' comments, in which he leveled harsh criticism on the Israeli leadership's handling of the peace process, including that of the prime minister," he said. "As was the case in the past when such documents were exposed, we believe this is another example of a conspiracy concocted by Israel, top Al Jazeera officials and WikiLeaks." He also suggested that some of the documents could have been forged. He further raised the possibility that some of the text might have been "fudged or edited" to corroborate claims made by the Israeli radical Right."