Palestine Papers Spotlight Surprisingly Serious Mideast Peace Talks

Documents revealed this week about Israeli-Palestinian talks are impressive in terms of the seriousness of the negotiators, but show there were still big gaps between the sides.

The diplomatic archive made public thanks to Al Jazeera and the Guardian documents talks held between Israel's Kadima government and the Palestinian Authority, and exposes in detail the positions put forward by the two sides before negotiations were aborted by Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the advent of a new government in Jerusalem.

Ma’aleh Adumim

No such reportage had previously emerged from the back rooms of the political process, with full transcripts of some exchanges between the sides. The present revelations, too, are incomplete: There are no direct quotations from the talks held between former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Nor are there transcripts of informal meetings held between Israeli politicians and security officials, and their Palestinian counterparts. But what has been published nevertheless affords a richer picture than was previously available about efforts to resolve the conflict.

The documents show that the negotiations that took place after the Annapolis conference were thorough and detailed. In dozens of meetings, the parties discussed the division of the land into two states, and future relations between them. There are no earth-shaking revelations of Israeli concessions. The positions taken by Olmert and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister at the time, were known to the Israeli public in real time; the map that Olmert presented to Abbas was published about a year ago in Haaretz. This time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refrained from assailing his predecessors over their proposals to the Palestinians - maybe because he doesn't want to paint himself into a corner.

The Palestinian negotiators found themselves in an embarrassing position this week, because of the disparity revealed between their tough public positions - mainly in regard to Jerusalem and the refugees - and the more flexible proposals they put forward in the talks. The documents brought to the fore the ongoing debate between the left and the right in Israel over whether to listen to what Arab policy makers say in the negotiating room, or to their public declarations. For instance, Yossi Beilin believes only the moderate stance that was heard in the closed room; Benny Begin only the militancy expressed before the cameras. This week's revelations do not provide a conclusive answer for that argument.

Olmert's false claim

The documents do not support Olmert's claim that "we were close to an agreement." On the contrary: They show that despite the negotiators' serious approach and the close accompaniment of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the differences remained very wide, with only a slim chance of reaching an agreement.

There is no dispute that on September 16, 2008, in a meeting at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, Olmert presented Abbas with his proposal for the future border between Israel and Palestine. Olmert told Abbas to sign the map, after which he could take it. The Palestinian leader refused and the two did not meet again.

But Abbas did not disregard Olmert's map. Nine days after the meeting in Jerusalem, he met with President George W. Bush in the White House. According to a partial transcript of the meeting, which was published this week, Bush told him something like, "It's impossible to get an agreement with Olmert. Keep trying, but don't expect anything." In a meeting with Rice afterward, Abbas complained that the Americans were supporting the Israeli position. "Why do you base your position on Olmert's map and not on our map?" he asked angrily. "I'm sick of your promises," Abbas said and again threatened to resign.

In that meeting Abbas declined to accept an American bridging proposal, probably because he thought Bush would adopt Olmert's map and force upon him a final settlement that would be close to the Israeli position. The documents show that at that stage the gaps remained wide. The Palestinians persisted in their demand for an Israeli withdrawal from Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Efrat, Givat Ze'ev and Har Homa. Rice did not support that approach, stating that no Israeli leader would forgo Ma'aleh Adumim and that a solution had to be found that would leave Ariel in Israel.

But Olmert did not make do with rejecting the Palestinian offer. During the negotiations he authorized the construction of hundreds of new apartments in Givat Ze'ev and Har Homa. The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala ), complained again to Livni and the Americans about the expansion of the settlements. "This is a deadly point for us," he said. Still, the Palestinians did not make the continuation of the talks conditional on a cessation of the building, as they are doing now in their dealings with the Netanyahu government.

A chart showing the gaps between the two sides, drawn up by the Palestinians in September 2008, reveals serious differences not only over the settlements and the final map, but on other issues as well. In Jerusalem, the Palestinians demanded full sovereignty over the Temple Mount, including the Western Wall; they were ready to accept only Israeli "control" at "the Wailing Wall - 57 meters from the Western Wall."

Furthermore, they demanded compensation for the years of occupation, settlement and plunder of the natural resources in the territories. And they wanted Israel to take responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and its continuation - which Israel refused to do. The Palestinians also rejected outright the Israeli insistence on having the Israel Defense Forces remain in the Jordan Rift Valley, and for Palestinian airspace to be subject to Israeli supervision. They were willing to absorb tens of thousands of Israeli settlers who would remain in their homes - but not one Israeli soldier.

The proposal that the settlers could be a Jewish minority in Palestine is perhaps the most surprising of all the revelations this week. Indeed, the leaked documents say the Palestinians were not insisting on the evacuation of every last settler, but sought only sovereignty over the area to be transferred to them. Livni rejected this out of hand, but Netanyahu is looking for creative solutions that will spare the need for future evacuation. Here, then, is an opening for an interesting deal.

The publication of the "Palestine Papers" and the criticism that the PA leadership took for making "far-reaching concessions" to Israel, will make things difficult for them if the talks on a final-status agreement ever resume. But even if Netanyahu's adversary, Abbas, was embarrassed, the Israeli prime minister has no reason to rejoice: The maps that were published will serve as the "zero point" for future talks, and he will not be able to erase the proposals made by his predecessors with the excuse that they are not binding in the absence of an agreement.