The Guardian Mideast editor: Nothing in the Palestine papers smacks of forgery
Ian Black, who has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the British media corporation for over two decades, shares in an exclusive interview.
Ian Black has been Middle East affairs editor of the Guardian for the last four years. Previously he served as the paper's Jerusalem correspondent in the late 1980s and 1990s, covering among other events the first intifada. In the interim he served as the Guardian's diplomatic editor and European affairs editor. This week, he is leading the coverage in the Guardian of the leaked documents on the peace talks.
Did you think, as many commentators have said today, that in publishing, together with Al Jazeera, the inside details of the Israel-Palestinian talks, you were basically ending Mahmoud Abbas' political career?
I think that from the moment we saw the documents, we thought that they provide a very important insight on the Israel-Palestinian peace process. I think Mahmoud Abbas was in a difficult position long before the documents saw the light of day, as anyone who follows the story closely knows.
The documents are a symptom of the malaise affecting the peace process and you don't need a PhD on the subject to work out the likely provenance of the documents. They reflect a deep unhappiness in Palestinian circles with the Palestinian Authority that has failed to deliver anything approaching an independent and viable Palestinian state after 20 years of negotiations. The documents themselves provide a very vivid look on the talks.
Not surprisingly, the moment the documents were published there were those, especially in the Palestinian Authority, who claimed they were fake. Without mentioning the source, what can you say as to their veracity?
I can say that the Guardian made every effort to authenticate the documents and to establish what they appear to be, by speaking to people who were involved in drawing them up and with diplomatic and intelligence sources in a position to contextualize them. Nothing smacks of forgery - the dates, places and participants are all real. Obviously it is embarrassing to be confronted in public with something that was said in private.
My own personal view is that the negotiators were trying very hard against almost impossible odds. Against Israel refusing to accept a huge concession over East Jerusalem and against American support for Israel's positions to keep holding settlements like Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim. The Palestinians were under huge pressure from Israel, supported by the United States, and from unhappiness within their own people. And that is without even talking about Hamas, who are fundamentally opposed to any kind of peace process. I was struck by the profound commitment of the Palestinian negotiators.
While you admire the Palestinian negotiators, it seems that your partners in this publication, Al Jazeera, have been leading a very different agenda of attacking the Palestinian negotiators for giving too much away. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel that Al Jazeera is Al Jazeera and the Guardian is the Guardian. Obviously Al Jazeera is often the source of controversy in the Arab world and often falls out with governments, as they have now with the Palestinian Authority. This issue has huge resonance for them and they are interpreting it in the terms of their audience.
What particularly surprised or impressed you, after all your years of covering this conflict, in the documents?
What I got was a strong sense of how the Palestinians are really weak and sounding desperate, especially in an area that we haven't yet published stories about - the negotiations in 2009, after the Gaza war and after the government in Israel changed and Obama became president in America, on the issue of a moratorium on settlement building. It is very striking to see the tension over the settlements issue, with the Palestinians really desperate to get a freeze and the Americans unable to provide it. You get [U.S. Middle East envoy George] Mitchell talking about Barack Obama as the best chance for peace, unlike any American president before him.
What is also very interesting in the documents is the intimacy of the relationship between the negotiators on both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, although they obviously don't agree on most things. There is another interesting detail and that is it's very clear that there is a conventional channel on negotiations, between Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, but then you have also Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas talking on a different channel, and the negotiators are complaining that they don't know what goes on there. For example, Livni was against Israel taking in any refugees whatsoever while Olmert had a different position.
Some Israeli commentators have said that actually, these documents are not telling us anything we didn't know before. We knew already that Olmert was proposing handing over around 97 percent of the territory and that there was still disagreement between the two sides.
We are showing details of what actually went on, but we didn't really go into the percentages because that is a fantastically complicated issue. The crucial detail is that the places they are negotiating about matters as much as how much territory.
You have been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over two decades. What was your feeling after reading the documents?
I have to say that I am very depressed. To me it is very clear that Tzipi Livni immediately rejected the very generous offer out of hand and simply said in response, "Well, what about Har Homa and Ma'aleh Adumim?"