JERUSALEM — In June 2008, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, warned a conference at Tel Aviv University that time was running out for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"This is the time for both of our leaders to decide,” Erekat said. "No one else will make these decisions for us. Not the United States, not Europe and no one else. I hope action will be taken. Every issue on the negotiating table has a solution."
“If we don't reach a settlement, there is a chance Hamas will take over the West Bank too and we will disappear,” he warned at the time.
On Sunday night, Al Jazeera revealed just how far Erekat and his colleagues were prepared to go to achieve that elusive peace deal with the publication of 1,600 documents leaked from Erekat’s own Negotiations Affairs Department office in Jericho.
The revelations were greeted with uproar from critics of the Palestinian leadership and accusations of forgery from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Some commentators said Abbas had been exposed as a cowering weakling unable to match the Israelis’ negotiating pressures. Others said the concessions revealed in the documents were old news and represented a Palestinian stance that had remained virtually unchanged for a decade.
Observers wondered who could be behind the leak and whether it was connected to an investigation announced last month into the activities of Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza strongman and leader of Fatah.
According to the leaked notes, maps and charts from secret meetings between Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. negotiators held between March 2008 and January 2010, dubbed the “Palestine Papers” by Al Jazeera, Palestinian leaders were prepared to cede large areas of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem and the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees, as well as allowing the continued presence of more than 300,000 Israeli settlers, in return for a peace deal finally granting Palestinian independence.
Hamas denounced Erekat for making “free concessions” and “unprecedented compromises” over Jerusalem.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the documents revealed attempts by the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to undermine the rights of the Palestinian people and its compliance with Israel’s attempts to crush armed resistance.
"We consider these documents are further evidence of the security and political decadence which the PA stooped to," Abu Zuhri said at a press conference.
Erekat hit back by denouncing the trickle of documents planned by Al Jazeera in the coming week as “theater.”
“This is part of a campaign targeting President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority at a time when we are going to the U.N. Security Council regarding the settlements," Erekat said, challenging Al Jazeera to name their sources.
"We have not gone back on our position,” he declared. “If we had given ground on the refugees and made such concessions, why hasn't Israel agreed to sign a peace accord?" he said, according to Al Jazeera.
As hundreds of enraged Fatah loyalists marched on the Al Jazeera bureau in Ramallah, Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo called a press conference to denounce the Doha-based TV network and the Emir of Qatar, who he accused of orchestrating a politically motivated campaign.
Ironically, in a meeting at a Jerusalem hotel in May 2008 included in the documents, former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei told Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: “Iran is against us. Qatar is against us.”
Further controversy is expected as Al Jazeera rolls out more notes of talks on refugees and security coordination with Israel, including evidence that the Palestinians downgraded their demand on refugees from the right of return for up to four million people to just 100,000, and that Israeli officials gave Ramallah advanced warning of their attack on Hamas in Gaza in December 2008.
That accusation was swiftly denied by Amos Gilad, the Israeli defense ministry official who handled contacts with the Palestinians at the time.
“This is an example of imprecision,” Gilad told Israel Radio. “Our towns were being murderously attacked. We warned Hamas there would be consequences and we briefed everyone in the world. The Palestinians received a general briefing that Israel could not continue to tolerate these attacks and one of the responses that could be expected would be a resort to military measures. We never conveyed in any manner any concrete plans to any foreigners as far as I am aware.”
After reading the entire trove of documents, retired CIA officer Robert L. Grenier told Al Jazeera that the Palestinians’ “failure to make any long-term, tangible gains for their people — despite their complicity in the process, despite their documented willingness to make far-reaching concessions, and despite having accepted American and Israeli support to repress their enemies and maintain themselves in power with at best threadbare legitimacy.”
But some local observers doubted that the uproar would have any long-term effect on the secure power base of the Palestinian leadership.
Professor Thiab Ayyoush, president of Palestine Ahliya University in Bethlehem and a veteran member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, told GlobalPost that while many Palestinians would be shocked to learn that Erekat was prepared to cede parts of Jerusalem, most of the positions expressed in the documents were well-known to insiders.
“I am familiar with most of what I heard. But many of our people and even many members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council do not have an idea about what has been said, so it will be embarrassing for sure,” Ayyoush said. “The position of Abu Mazen is very strong now. It is better than at any time before.”
Ron Pundak, one of the original architects of the Oslo peace process who is now director-general of the Peres Center for Peace, said the Palestinian position shown in the records was almost unchanged from the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000 and 2001.
"What Al Jazeera is trying to do is to smear the PLO negotiators,” Pundak told GlobalPost.
“These positions were the same positions that the Palestinians were conveying since Camp David, through Taba. The only issue here is that the resolution is a bit finer. It’s amazing to see how close the two sides were to an agreement," he said. "This is the real conclusion.”