Editorial: Middle East foes blew best chance

The common perception of the Middle East is of the Israelis and the Palestinians being implacable foes, with neither being prepared to give an inch in their long-running negotiations.

Such an impression must now be tempered. Diplomatic communiques and transcripts of private high-level meetings leaked to the Arab TV network al-Jazeera reveal how much the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas was prepared to concede to Israel as the price for creating a Palestinian state.

In so doing, however, the so-called Palestine Papers have probably ensured a peace deal is now as elusive as ever.

The documents reveal that in 2008 Palestinian negotiators were willing to agree to an Israeli annexation of nearly all the Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel in 1967 and is the Palestinians' would-be capital.

Further, they would consider a resettlement of only a nominal number of the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East.

The concessions were made as the Palestinian Authority sought a lasting pact from the Annapolis agreement brokered by President George W. Bush. Talks got as far as haggling over the extent of a land swap before ending in December 2008 when Israel began its assault on Hamas-ruled Gaza.

In one way, there was little new in the revelations about east Jerusalem. Parameters set a decade earlier by former President Bill Clinton provided that areas settled by Jews in east Jerusalem remained Israeli and Arab neighbourhoods went to Palestine. Even so, the importance of east Jerusalem to Palestinians should not be underestimated.

Yet of even greater moment was the abandonment of the "right of return" of refugees to Israel. Palestinians have traditionally been adamant that this must be recognised in any peace deal. Israel, for its part, has always insisted mass resettlement would spell its end as a Jewish state.

This concession may, therefore, be the most damaging disclosure for Mr Abbas. The rival Hamas, which refuses to negotiate with Israel, has seized on it to accuse him of treason.

More widely, however, the problem for the Palestinian Authority is the large gap between the concessions it was apparently prepared to make and its public rhetoric.

Inevitably, this raises questions about its credibility and accusations of weakness. It also suggests Mr Abbas will feel the need to adopt a sterner position in future negotiations.

A moment of promise has clearly passed. It is important to recognise this harks back three years, when Israel was led by the pragmatic Ehud Olmert.

There was more fertile ground for progress than is the case under the current Israeli leadership of hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Mr Netanyahu's refusal to contemplate a full freeze on Israeli settlement has grounded negotiations for now.

Yet even in 2008, Israel seems to have been unprepared to answer the Palestinian Authority's plea for a reasonable response to its concessions. It was, of course, negotiating from a position of immense strength. Even so, asking the Palestinians to cede land if Israel gave up the Golan Heights to Syria was wholly unreasonable.

Subsequent document leaks were previewed by al-Jazeera as showing a damagingly high level of co-ordination between Mr Abbas' security forces and Israel against their joint enemy, Hamas. So far, that has not proved to be the case.

But the lingering problem for the Palestinian Authority will be that it kept its people in the dark over the compromises it was prepared to make. The lingering problem for Israel is that it proved unwilling to seize a moment when the Palestinians were willing to put previously out-of-bounds issues on the table. History could have been made.

- NZ Herald

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