“The ‘Palestine Papers’ show Israeli intransigence and deep Palestinian concessions for peace....”

Published: 6 September 2011
Briefing Number 297

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Summary: In January 2011 Arab satellite TV broadcaster Al-Jazeera and Britain’s Guardian newspaper simultaneously published the so-called ‘Palestine Papers’ – previously confidential documents dealing with the Palestinian Authority’s face-to-face peace negotiations with Israel since 1999. 

The Palestine Papers were seized upon by many commentators to make two allegations about Israel: (i) that Israel was intransigent in negotiations with the Palestinians over a two-state solution, and (ii) that, by contrast, the Palestinians had offered deep concessions in exchange for future peace, and showed themselves to be genuine peace partners. 

This new Beyond Images Briefing challenges these two allegations.  We show that the Palestine Papers were taken completely out of context, and if anything the truth on these two points was precisely the opposite! 

Firstly, the negotiations referred to in the Palestine Papers took place in the context of Israel’s proposals to withdraw from the equivalent of 100% of the territory of the West Bank, which cannot be described as an “intransigent” stance on Israel’s part about a two-state solution.  Yet, this context has been ignored by commentators making the allegation;

Secondly, when the Palestine Papers were published, there was a ferocious backlash in Palestinian society against the Palestinian negotiators who had considered compromise in the secret talks.  And the Palestinian negotiators publicly distanced themselves from the version of events recounted in the Papers. These reactions show that, far from being ready for deep concessions, the Palestinian public are simply unprepared for the pragmatic compromises which will be needed to achieve peace and a two-state solution with Israel.  The claim that the Palestine Papers shows the Palestinians to have been true peace partners is completely refuted by events following their publication.       

What are The Palestine Papers?

In January 2011 satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera and The Guardian newspaper in the UK simultaneously published the so-called ‘Palestine Papers’: a collection of over 1000 documents which provide selective insider descriptions of face-to-face Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations during the period from 2001 to 2009. 

The Papers are believed to have been leaked to the media by the Palestinian Authority’s negotiation support unit. The detailed content of the talks had previously been secret.

The disclosures triggered a huge row in the region about their accuracy, the motivation of those leaking them, and what they revealed. 

Typical of the comments by Western journalists was the following from Lindsey Hilsum, who is the international news editor of the UK-based TV station Channel 4 (her comment was published on the Channel 4 website as a background comment to the TV series The Promise, in February 2011):

“Documents leaked to Al Jazeera TV network [ie the Palestine Papers] suggest that while on many occasions Palestinian negotiators were willing to compromise to achieve a Palestinian state, Israel would not budge....”

Others who made this argument were Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland. In a prominent Guardian Op-Ed which he wrote on the day the Palestine Papers were published, Freedland claimed that the Papers showed that Israel had a negotiating partner in the Palestinians, and that it was Israeli extreme positions which had prevented progress.

Below we address these two central allegations, in turn:

“The Palestine Papers show Israeli intransigence over a two-state solution...”

  • The latter stages of the negotiations which are described in the Palestine Papers allegedly show Israel “refusing to budge” over their rights in certain suburbs of Jerusalem, and in rejecting the Palestinian ‘right of return’ into Israel.  But the Papers are taken completely out of context.  That context is that this phase of negotiations focused on a tabled Israeli proposal to withdraw from the equivalent of 100% of the West Bank, and to create a Palestinian state on that territory  
  • In reality, the Israeli negotiators described in the Papers were not looking to retain the whole West Bank territory, but, on the contrary, to withdraw from the equivalent of the whole territory, and were negotiating over which small parts to cling onto, in exchange for other land.  As far as the Israeli claims over Jerusalem are concerned, the Israeli assertion of sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Jewish suburbs had been well recognised as an Israeli demand since 2000-2001, and was acknowledged by the Clinton parameters for a two-state solution, and by the Geneva Initiative among others – two very doveish, conciliatory initiatives.  Thus, this Israeli stance could not be described as a “refusal to budge” either
  • By ignoring the context of the Israeli negotiating position, commentators have completely misrepresented the situation.  They seek to use the Palestine Papers to portray Israeli intransigence, whereas, in fact, the situation referred to in the Papers, taken in context, shows the exact opposite.


“The Palestinians were ready to make massive concessions for peace....”

  • Secondly, it is argued that the Palestine Papers reveal that the Palestinians were ready to make major concessions for peace.  Specifically, the negotiators were shown to have accepted certain Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem in behind-the-scenes talks, and possibly some land swaps involving settlement blocs too, as part of a permanent peace deal.  This is taken as proof by commentators like Hilsum and Freedland, and many others, that the Palestinians were ready to make far-reaching concessions and were true peace partners – unlike Israel

  • The problem with this argument is that the Palestinian positions described in the Palestine Papers were all taken in secret negotiations.  There was no public discussion about them, and minimal public indication of the stance being taken (apart from other leaks which were little reported at the time)

  • As soon as the Palestinian positions became publicly known, in January 2011, there was a ferocious backlash against the negotiators inside Palestinian society   

  • Accusations by Palestinian commentators and the public of betrayal and treachery by the Palestinian Authority negotiators were commonplace.  Palestinian negotiators like Saeb Erekat were forced to claim that the Papers were in fact a fabrication or a distortion, and they denied they would have made the concessions recounted in them. Typical of the disclaimers were statements like: “We would never agree to a Jewish presence in Arab East Jerusalem.....; “we would never surrender the right of return”; we will never agree to any settlements whatsoever...” etc etc 

  • The fact that the Palestinian ‘street’ needed to be placated in this way shows the massive gulf between private pragmatism and public intransigence  

  • In private the Palestinian moderate negotiators did indeed consider practical compromise, but in public such a strategy was impossible to ‘sell’

  • Far from being ready for peace and deep concessions, the reaction of the Palestinian public to publication of the Papers shows a society which has not yet embraced the ideas needed for a two-state solution

  • The events following publication show the Palestinians to be locked in an ideology which places symbolism over pragmatism, on refugees, on Jerusalem, on borders etc – and that their people are not ready at all for the practical compromises which will be needed to achieve peace.

  • Once again, the allegation made about the Palestine Papers – by Freedland, Hilsum and many others - is thus completely unfounded.

For further key background see:

‘The Palestine Papers: Al Jazeera has an agenda’ by Pinhas Inbari
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) Briefing, 27 January 2011, (Volume 10 No25) – see www.jcpa.org

BICOM Briefing, 28 January 2011, ‘The Palestine Papers: Analysis or Agenda?  An independent assessment of the Guardian’s coverage of the Palestine Papers’ (see www.bicom.org.uk)

Beyond Images Briefing 225 – 5 December 2008
2008: Israel offers to pull out of 93% of the West Bank, plus give 7% more land – Palestinians say no