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Palestinian leaders abandoning ancestral claims to homeland: documents Add to ...

Palestinian leaders have all but relinquished the claim of a Palestinian right to return to their ancestral homeland, according to the latest documents leaked to the Al-Jazeera news network and made public.

In a second batch of documents, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiators are shown in 2008 to have abandoned the historical claim, enshrined in the 1948 United Nations Resolution 194, and yielded as well on which Palestinians would be allowed to vote in a referendum on any final agreement reached with Israel.

Those who would be allowed to cast ballots in a referendum would include Palestinians only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator. The idea of a referendum was never intended to apply to the Palestinian diaspora, he is reported to have said.

The information comes from hundreds of transcripts and notes from a decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations obtained by the Qatar-based network. It shared them with Britain's Guardian newspaper, and both organizations began releasing them Sunday. If the first day of revelations concerning territorial compromises and the status of Jerusalem disappointed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, this latest batch of leaked documents will make millions of Palestinians furious.

The Palestinian identity is intimately linked to the people's status as refugees. The stories of how hundreds of thousands fled the 1948-49 fighting in Palestine, an event they call the naqba (catastrophe), are told in the thousands of homes and refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Those hundreds of thousands have now grown to more than three million, all of whom claim a right to return.

While no right-thinking Palestinian ever believed that every one of these people would go "home," they have expected their leaders would bargain hard over the numbers and over some form of compensation in exchange for relinquishing their claim.

The documents that have been released show little evidence of either.

Mr. Abbas acknowledges in the minutes of one meeting that it would be "illogical" to argue for a large scale Palestinian return.

Mr. Erekat and other negotiators suggested that Israel accept the return of 10,000 a year for 10 years, a total of 100,000.

"That's a relative drop in the bucket," said a former Western diplomat familiar with these matters. "Israel should have grabbed it."

The number 100,000 was a reduction from the 150,000 that had been discussed in negotiations in Taba a decade ago, said Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information.

In the 2008 Annapolis meetings from which these leaked documents were drawn, the Israelis "were prepared to accept only 10,000," Mr. Baskin said. He added that Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister at the time of these discussions, "hinted at the possibility of accepting 30,000."

As much as the idea of returning home is a touchstone for Palestinians, the exclusion of any such idea is a sine qua non for Israelis.

That was the issue that prevented Tzipi Livni from entertaining the concessions Palestinians were making, Mr. Baskin says.

"She wanted the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he said, "and she wanted them to completely renounce the right of return."

Those were also the things that kept her from agreeing to any of the considerable Palestinian concessions on the makeup and status of Jerusalem, he said.

"To her these were fundamental."

In fact, Ms. Livni, then Israeli foreign minister, wanted to offload some of the Palestinians inside Israel as well, apparently in pursuit of her goal of a Jewish state.

Documents reveal her suggestion that Arab villages, currently split by the Green Line that divides Israel from the West Bank, be reunited, but only on the Palestinian side of the line.

Recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has proposed similar ideas of swapping with the Palestinian Authority Israeli land containing Arabs for West Bank land containing Jews in the large Israeli settlements.

His idea of killing two birds with one stone has been widely denounced as racist and not in keeping with Israel's democratic nature. Now it appears, Ms. Livni, leader of the self-described "centre-left" Kadima party, has harboured such ideas for years.

As for the idea of recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state," Mr. Erekat said it was entirely up to Israel what it called itself. "If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel, you can call it what you want," he is reported to have said, comparing the idea to Iran and Saudi Arabia's definition of themselves as Islamic or Arab.

But Ms. Livni, Mr. Baskin says, would settle for nothing less than the recognition of such status by the Palestinians.

During the 2008 Annapolis process, bilateral meetings were held between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas, and parallel meetings, dealing with intricate details, were held between Ms. Livni and Ahmed Qurei, the chief Palestinian negotiator at the time. Interestingly, Mr. Baskin notes, "the Olmert-Abbas meetings were far more fruitful."

Indeed, by December, 2008, the two leaders neared agreement on many issues and Mr. Olmert is reported to have shown Mr. Abbas a map that revealed the Israeli leader's proposal for a massive land swap and the sharing of Jerusalem.

The ball, Mr. Baskin says, was then in Mr. Abbas's court. As he weighed his response, however, Israel launched its assault on Hamas in Gaza. That was followed by an election and Mr. Olmert's departure from office.

The Olmert-Abbas near-agreement became a footnote.

 

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