The leak of 1,600 documents covering a decade of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority threatens to shake up the status quo of this region more than the peace process itself.
The documents reveal that Palestinian negotiators offered substantial concessions to Israel in the two areas considered most intractable in the peace talks: the matter of Palestinian refugees and their claim to a right to return to their home communities now inside Israel; and the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as the sovereign capital of each.
While the leaked documents so far released provide a glimpse into some Israeli concessions, the overwhelming picture that emerges from these leaks is of Israel's intransigence. Time after time, Palestinian proposals were greeted negatively by their Israeli counterparts.
"We do not like this suggestion because it does not meet our demands," Israel's then foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, told the Palestinians on one occasion, "and probably it was not easy for you to think about it, but I really appreciate it."
For most of the last two years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that it is Israel alone that is willing to make the hard concessions for the sake of peace. These documents show it is the Palestinian Authority that were willing to make considerable concessions.
In that respect, the release of the "Palestine Papers," as they are being called, may have a more negative effect on the Israeli leadership than on the Palestinians.
The thousands of pages of Palestinian records fell into the hands of Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned news network, which began revealing its contents Sunday night. The documents were shared with Britain's Guardian newspaper, which began publishing its contents Monday.
On the question of refugees, Palestinian negotiators reportedly offered to limit to 10,000 the number of Palestinians who would be allowed to return each year to their old homeland and only for a 10-year period. This would cap the number of refugees at 100,000.
It is estimated that several hundred thousand Palestinians fled or were driven out of their homes in fighting in 1948-49. Including their descendants, the number of people who claim a refugee's right to return now number more than 3 million.
On the subject of Jerusalem, Palestinian negotiators secretly agreed to accept Israel's annexation of all but one of the settlements Israel built on land in parts of Jerusalem occupied in 1967.
And on the highly contentious subject of the status the Old City of Jerusalem, the negotiators reportedly relinquished any Palestinian claim to the Old City's Jewish and Armenian Quarters. Since all of the Old City was captured by Israel only in 1967, it has long been the Palestinian position that all of the Old City should revert to Palestinian sovereignty.
Regarding the most sacred part of the Old City, known in Arabic as the Haram ash-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat even went so far as to offer a creative solution to its status.
He proposed that a joint body made up of the Palestinians, Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would administer the site until Israel and the Palestinians could work out a permanent arrangement.
The offers on Jerusalem were made in 2008-2009 to the administration of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mr. Erekat is recorded as having told the Israelis: "This is the first time in Palestinian-Israeli history in which such a suggestion is officially made."
Mr. Erekat, interviewed by Al Jazeera, denied offering such concessions, or saying such things.
The Jerusalem document was an Israeli proposal, not a Palestinian one, he said.
He also denied the report about a Palestinian offer to limit the return of refugees.
While the revelations strike no one who has followed the years of negotiations as particularly surprising - the back-channel Israeli-Palestinian document known as the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, which provided a blueprint for a peace agreement 15 years ago, contained similar suggestions - the explicit offers and the conciliatory, sometimes fawning tone of the Palestinian negotiators are likely to create a severe backlash against the Palestinian Authority, at least in the short run.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will not appreciate being recorded as noting "with pleasure the fact that [then Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon considered him a friend, and the fact that he too considered Sharon a friend," or that he once told Israelis "every bullet that is aimed in the direction of Israel is a bullet aimed at the Palestinians as well."
"The things they conceded are precious to us," said a Palestinian woman who was shocked at the revelations concerning Jerusalem. "They had no right to tamper with our heritage."
Mr. Erekat and his predecessor as chief negotiator, Ahmed Qurei, tried hard last evening to backtrack from the revelations.
"Many parts of the documents were fabricated, as part of the incitement against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian leadership," Mr. Qurei said.
But Mr. Erekat, himself, has boasted to some groups of the kind of offer the Palestinians were prepared to make, as well as of the concessions the Olmert government was willing to offer.
Indeed, Mr. Olmert has said he offered the Palestinians a state in the Gaza Strip and about 95 per cent of the West Bank, with territorial swaps to make up the difference, including a corridor to link the West Bank and Gaza. In Jerusalem, he said, he suggested the same international arrangement outlined Sunday by Al Jazeera for the holy site and division of the Arab and Jewish sections.
According to the quoted documents, the Palestinian negotiators wanted the Israeli land given to them to include a section close to the Green Line where many of Israel's minority Arab citizens live.
Mr. Olmert said the land swap would be for territory along the length of the West Bank but would not include the sections where Arab Israelis live.
Highlights from the leaked transcripts of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
June 15, 2008
Meeting in Jerusalem with Condoleezza Rice, the then-US secretary of state, Tzipi Livni, the then-Israeli foreign minister, Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Authority former prime minister, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Mr. Qurei: "We proposed that Israel annexes all settlements in Jerusalem except Ja bal Abu Ghneim [Har Homa] This is the first time in history that we make such a proposition ... We cannot accept the annexation of Ma'ale Adumin, Ariel, Giv'at Ze'ev, Ephrat and Har Homa settlements....
"If we agree on the concept I think that in three weeks we can reach an agreement on borders and land issues."
Al Jazeera says Mr. Erekat also proposed the geographical division of Jerusalem's Old City, with the Israelis keeping control of the Jewish Quarter and "part of the Armenian Quarter."
Jan. 15, 2010
At a meeting with U.S. diplomat David Hale, Mr. Erekat said: "What is in that paper gives [the Israelis]the biggest Yerushalaim [Jeruselem]in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state...what more can I give?"
"[Israeli Prime Minister]Netanyahu says East Jerusalem is just a neighbourhood, like Tel Aviv, so it's building as usual, tenders...it will finish [Palestinian President Abbas]off. The problem with all U.S. administrations is they underestimated the significance of Jerusalem to the Palestinians for internal Palestinian politics...
"Our credibility on the ground has never been so low. Now it's about survival. There is Hamas and the bigger picture in the region."
At no point do the Israelis indicate they could accept this offer. Instead, one document relates what former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert apparently offered Abbas.
Aug. 21, 2008
"Israel would annex 6.8 per cent of the West Bank, including the four main settlement blocs of Gus Etzion, Ma'ale Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, and Ariel, as well as all of the settlements in East Jerusalem [with Har Homa] in exchange for the equivalent of 5.5 per cent from Israeli territory."
On refugees Israel would acknowledge the "suffering" of refugees, but not take responsibility for it ... Israel would take in 1,000 refugees a year for five years on "humanitarian grounds, and would contribute to compensation of refugees "based on suffering."
Besides the core peace issues, the transcripts show that other topics also emerge, such as the issue of the Golan Heights, which were seized from Syria by Israel in 1967.
May 21, 2008
Ms. Livni says in passing that Israel was "giving up the Golan" as part of secret peace talks with Syria, which were then under way. As a result of losing the Heights, Mr. Livni says the Israelis will need some land from the Palestinians.
Mr. Qurei responds: "Yes, you make us pay the price."
The peace talks with Syria subsequently ended without a deal.
Other documents to be revealed in the coming days are said to detail:
- The scale of confidential concessions offered by Palestinian negotiators, including on the highly sensitive issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
- How Israeli leaders privately asked for some Arab citizens to be transferred to a new Palestinian state.
- The intimate level of covert co-operation between Israeli security forces and the Palestinian Authority.
- How Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders were privately tipped off about Israel's 2008-9 war in Gaza.
Reuters New Agency, Guardian News Agency