The "Palestine Papers" revisited

Detailed analysis that tells a very different story.

When a newspaper makes charges as serious as the Guardian has in describing Palestinian negotiators as "craven", and builds a particularly pernicious analysis of the Palestinians in particular, but also the Israelis, we expect there to be substantial evidence to back up such claims. Our detailed analysis (PDF) of reports of the "Palestine Papers", versus the actual content of the papers, as well as conversations with Palestinian and Israeli experts who have direct experience of the events, tell a different story.

The Guardian's claim, for example, that the Palestinians privately conceded on recognising Israel as a Jewish state, is based on the Palestinians' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, reportedly telling his Israeli counterpart, "If you want to call your state the Jewish State of Israel you can call it what you want." For the Guardian this is evidence of a private concession. But, in fact, Erekat was simply echoing a well-known Palestinian position, repeated publicly by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, that Israel can call itself whatever it wants, but should not expect the Palestinians to simply recognise its Jewish character.

Whatever the wisdom of this position, it is a case of Palestinian consistency, rather than weakness.

The Guardian also claims that the Palestinian leadership privately "gave up" on refugees, settling for the return of 10,000 to Israel. In fact, the document this figure comes from refers only to Israel's then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, accepting the figure of 10,000. It does not say that this figure was agreeable to the Palestinian side. The Guardian further claims that Erekat circulated a paper in which the Palestinians expressed "willingness to accept an Israeli proposal to allow in 15,000 refugees".

But this figure is based on an apparent misreading of a Haaretz report, which in fact states that the Palestinians demanded the return of at least 150,000. Such a position is not inconsistent with the line taken publicly at the time by Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, however, said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper in September 2008:

We understand that if we demand of you that all five million [refugees] return to Israel, the State of Israel would be destroyed. But we must talk about compromise and see to what numbers you can agree.

Just as baseless is the insinuation that the then Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, "argued for the transfer of Israeli Arab villages to a Palestinian state". The Guardian links this claim to negotiation sessions in April and June 2008 where the Israeli side raised the problem of four specific Arab villages bisected by the Green Line.

Drawing the border on the Green Line would split the villages, creating a humanitarian problem. The Israelis suggest the idea of including the entire villages on the Palestinian side as part of a land-swap deal. They do not set this out as their position, but propose it as one of three options – that the villages be divided, all Israeli, or all Palestinian.

There is no evidence in the published documents of the Israeli side promoting a general policy of transfer. Indeed, the documents record Livni speaking up for the equal rights of Israeli Arabs.

The coverage was similarly misleading on the question of the Palestinian border proposal. The newspaper reported that Palestinian concessions on borders and Jerusalem were dismissed by Israel "out of hand". But the documents show that, far from rejecting the offer out of hand, the Israeli side suggested that "the experts sit together and discuss the gaps and differences between the two maps". Rather than intransigence, they showed flexibility.

In several other ways, the Guardian's coverage slanted the story to support its narrative. Significant Israeli proposals, such as those tabled by Prime Minister Olmert in August 2008, were part of the leaked papers, but were largely ignored. Examples of Palestinians standing firm on their positions were overlooked.

Remarks, sometimes said in humour, or sarcastically, or to probe the other side, were treated as official negotiating positions. Furthermore, the snapshot of negotiations covered in the papers refers to concessions that are well known, from the Clinton Parameters to the Geneva Accords and what we know of Annapolis.

Many Guardian journalists are experts in the field and understand these details inside out – yet they feign surprise. This helped create a picture of the Palestinians as sell-outs and Israel as being uninterested in peace. But our own assessment shows a far more complex picture. The gaps were significant, with both sides driving a hard bargain. Yet there is evidence that both sides showed a genuine intent to overcome the differences.

Lorna Fitzsimons is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad