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 Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.