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WEST BANK: More document leaks show U.S. pressure, Palestinian frustrations

January 27, 2011 | 10:08 am

Al Jazeera's latest leak of hundreds of secret Palestinian negotiating papers is providing the kind of fly-on-the-wall insights to Mideast peace talks that usually only emerge many years later in the autobiographies of politicians and diplomats.

Though some of the initial coverage and spin by Al Jazeera and other organizations has been inaccurate or out of context, the documents themselves offer a treasure trove of detailed information about Palestinians' internal strategy and tactics. Most of the documents were produced by the Palestinian Authority's own attorneys, advisors and negotiators and include transcripts of private strategy sessions and internal talking points. It's a bonanza for Israel, which can get a peek into the Palestinian thought process as recently as last year.

One December 2009 document discusses "Palestinian Messaging and Implementation." Another lays out the legal risks of a premature declaration of statehood. An internal summary of where peace talks last broke down reveals that Palestinians were prepared in 2008 to limit the number of returning refugees to 15,000 a year for 10 years, or 150,000.

Israelis and others can also get a taste of what American diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and envoy George Mitchell, say when Israelis aren't the in the room. In discouraging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas from a threat to quit, Clinton reportedly tells chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that such a move will be celebrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Arab world, which doesn't want to see a the birth of a democratic Palestinian state.

"The President [Obama] is strongly committed to supporting [Abbas] and his government," Mitchell reportedly tells Erekat at a U.N. meeting on Sept. 24, 2009. "I’ve devoted half my time over the last several months to things like getting you support."

Later Mitchell tells Erekat bluntly that peace talks are the only option. "[T]he only way to get an agreement is with negotiations. You won’t get it from us." But on Oct. 2, 2009, he adds that Obama, more than any past U.S. president, is "completely committed to achieving the objective you want."

The cache of papers in October 2009 are particularly intriguing because it was one of the most difficult periods for Palestinians. Americans had just given up on efforts to force Israel to impose a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The PA was feeling betrayed and abandoned by Arab countries, particularly Egypt. And Abbas, in perhaps one of his most-regretted political decisions, bowed to U.S. pressure by withdrawing his support for a move to refer the Goldstone Commission's war-crime inquiry to the U.N. Security Council.

After Abbas suffered an avalanche of criticism from his own people, the PA hardened their negotiating stance, documents show, and adopted a firm stance against returning to the negotiating table until housing construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem stops.

In a spirited debate with Mitchell, Erekat complains about being misled by a succession of U.S. administrations and says that if the U.S. can't secure a settlement freeze, it can't forge a peace deal. Mitchell tells him Palestinians are throwing away their best chance for peace in decades.
The same document also shows the Palestinians' deep distrust of Netanyahu and an overconfidence that his government would fall if the peace process collapsed, despite American warnings that such expectations were wishful thinking.

-- Edmund Sanders