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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.