The Palestine Papers


by Shibani Mahtani. Originally published by our partner site, World Policy Blog.

As the Mubarak regime lays in tatters and Arabs from Yemen to Bahrain take to the streets, the Palestinian Authority, like other governments in the Arab world, has dissolved the cabinet and called for elections in response to demands for accountability. Experts, however, say that the move had as much to do with the "Palestine Papers," secret documents leaked to Al-Jazeera revealing the inner workings of negotiations with the Israeli government.

The files were released just two days before Jan. 25 – the day that changed the course of Egyptian history. Now, Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, has resigned and his Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) has been disbanded.

"Clearly this had very serious ramifications for the Palestinian leadership who did not handle the crisis well," said Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, who served as an advisor to the NSU till 2009. Elgindy argued that the knee-jerk reaction of the Palestinian Authority–denying the authenticity of the papers–"eroded" his credibility.

Speaking at the same panel discussion, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian attorney and adjunct professor at Georgetown, said that while the papers revealed nothing new for anyone closely following the "peace process," the Palestinian diaspora was "appalled at the extent to which the negotiations team was willing to compromise and the weakness of its position."

One of the biggest compromises, as revealed in the papers, was the issue of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees. In one of the papers, President Mahmoud Abbas effectively acknowledged that the principle of the right of return had become little more than a symbol. "On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million, or indeed one million—that would be the end of Israel," Abbas is quoted as saying. According to documents, the PLO and the Israeli government agreed that only a symbolic number of 10,000 refugees would be allowed to return to a future Palestinian state, out of a total population of 4.7 million U.N.-registered refugees.

Experts anticipate a substantial backlash from the revelations since Palestinians see the expulsion of refugees during the creation of Israel in 1948 as their nakba, or catastrophe.

"It’s been an open secret for years, since Camp David, that the right of return is essentially impossible," said Paul Scham, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. "But very few Palestinian leaders will say that in public. They don’t want to break it to the Palestinian people, especially those in refugee camps, unless they have several other compromises [from Israel]."

"The surprise and anger was somewhat artificial," argued Scham, who believes that even Hamas has stated that it realizes that Israel will never accept the full right of return. However, a 2010 poll conducted by the Palestine Center for Public Opinion revealed that 81.8% of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza would not accept a compromise of the full right of return.

It is certain, however, that both the Palestine Papers and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have severely affected the future of the peace process.

"I’ve been an optimist for over 20 years, I still think the conflict is solvable, but not given the [current] political context," said Scham. "It is safer not to do anything than risk the political dislocation that the negotiations will cause."

"What’s happened in Egypt proves that legitimacy does matter," said Elgindy, arguing that the response to the documents was so vociferous because the Palestinian Authority already suffered from diminished legitimacy and credibility vis-a-vis its constituents.

Mark Perry, an American journalist who went through the papers with Al Jazeera before their release, remarked that the papers reaffirmed what many already considered to be the futility of the peace process.

"When people tell you the Egyptian revolution buried the peace process, you tell them it was dead long ago," he remarked.

 Shibani Mahtani, who is from Singapore, is a student in the "International Newsroom" course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Israel, Palestine