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Palestine Papers Cause Heartburn in Washington

Inter Press Service

The exposure by Al Jazeera and London's Guardian newspaper of a huge cache of documents detailing Palestinian accounts of a decade of peace negotiations with Israel could deal a lethal blow to U.S. efforts to get a credible process back on track, according to experts here.

By demonstrating how much the Palestine Authority (PA) was willing to give up in exchange for an independent state, the 1,600- some documents, whose disclosure began Sunday and will reportedly continue through Wednesday, are likely to further undermine in its people's eyes the already badly weakened regime headed by its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

"It is likely to deal a death blow to an American-led peace process already on life support, and hasten the end of the Palestinian Authority created by the 1993 Oslo accords," wrote Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the Washington office of the Institute for Palestinian Studies, in the Financial Times Monday.

"It is an increasingly hollow shell, that may soon be blown away. The winds are coming from Tunisia," she continued, in a reference — one of many made Monday – to the ouster earlier this month of the long-ruling former president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. "Palestine may be next."

While U.S. officials said they did not think the PA, which has tried to cast doubt on the documents' authenticity, was about to collapse, they conceded that the massive leak marks a serious setback to their goal of getting Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu back into direct talks.

"We don't deny that this release will, at least for a time, make the situation more difficult than it already was," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, "but also we are clear-eyed about this, we always recognised that this would be a great challenge but it doesn't change our overall objective."

U.S. officials also worried that the disclosures would make it more difficult for Washington to persuade Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to withdraw or amend a pending U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as violations of the Geneva Conventions.

The administration of President Barack Obama has hinted that it will veto the resolution even though its language is consistent with Washington's policy and last officially stated position on the illegality of settlements. The resolution's sponsors expect it will be tabled before the Council shortly after a Feb. 6 meeting of the Middle East Quartet, which includes the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the U.N. itself.

"After [the disclosures], I'm afraid Abbas has no choice but to take a tough line to preserve his domestic support," one administration official told IPS on condition of anonymity. "He can't afford to back down on this even if he wanted to."

The Palestinian papers, which come amid the continuing reverberations from the mammoth Wikileaks document dump, purportedly show, among other things, that the PA was willing to permit Israel to annex of all but one of the Jewish settlements created in East Jerusalem since the 1967 war.

In one document, Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat is quoted as saying that Palestinians were prepared to give Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history". Yerushalayim is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem.

They also detailed a purported Palestinian proposal to establish a joint committee with Israel to take custody of the Haram Al Sharif, one of Islam's holiest sites, in Jerusalem's old city, a concession that former PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat rejected during the unsuccessful Camp David peace talks in 2000.

The documents released so far also suggest that the PA was willing to give up their claims to major settlements in the West Bank, as well, and even accept a land-swap arrangement with Israel that would not give them an equal one-to-one exchange.

Moreover, when it balked at Israeli demands to give up claims to two key settlements – Ma'ale Adumim and Ariel – in exchange for land, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reportedly warned the Palestinian negotiators: "You won't have a state."

While the documents cover the period from Camp David to close to the present impasse over U.S. efforts to persuade the Palestinians to resume direct talks without requiring a freeze on Jewish settlement activity, many are focused on the last year of the administration of President George W. Bush when Abbas was engaged directly with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Altogether, they suggest that the Palestinians were much more inclined to compromise than their Israeli counterparts and that Washington – whether under Bill Clinton, Bush, or Obama – invariably pressed, and are still pressing, the Palestinians harder than the Israelis.

"[T]he documents show that unquestioning U.S. support for Israel mainly gave the Israelis the confidence to continue to expect and receive ever more concessions from the Palestinians, while absolving them of any real pressure to actually make a deal," noted Matt Duss, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress (CAP). He added that the disclosures revealed the last decade of efforts as "little more than a surrender process".

Indeed, two Jewish-American peace groups Monday greeted the release of the papers as new evidence that, contrary to Israel's long-standing claim, the Palestinians have been ready to make pace.

"These documents – if authentic – highlight a reality that peace process cynics have long sought to deny: Israel has a more real 'partner' than it has ever been willing to admit," according to a statement by Americans for Peace Now that called for a "dramatic change" in Washington's approach as "an uninterested mediator or as Israel's lawyer.""

J Street, a two-year-old lobby group, echoed that assessment in a call for Obama to put forward his own peace proposals.

"We now know from the Palestinian papers &that the Palestinian leadership is ready to make painful concessions to achieve a two-state solution" in contrast to the "& ongoing intransigence of the Israeli government and its rigid determination to continue expanding and deepening its presence in areas beyond the 1967 Green Line," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group's president.

But one of the current Israeli government's staunchest supporters here said he hoped the papers' release would instill "greater realism" on the part of the Palestinians, rather than greater activism by the U.S.

"The release of these 'Palestine Papers' may be healthy," wrote Elliott Abrams, the top Middle East official in the Bush White House on his blog at the Council on Foreign Relations website.

"Anything that helps Palestinian public opinion move toward greater realism about the compromises needed for peace is useful," he noted, adding that, based on his own participation in the 2007-2008 talks, "I would not take every one of these documents as necessarily 100 percent accurate."

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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