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Al-Jazeera angers Palestinians

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; A11

JERUSALEM - The publication this week of documents revealing the Palestinian leadership's willingness to concede parts of East Jerusalem and make other difficult compromises in peace talks with Israel is troublesome for both sides.

For Palestinian negotiators, the risk is an erosion of credibility, with the documents strongly suggesting to the Palestinian public that their leaders abandoned core Palestinian positions in exchange for little from Israel, analysts said Monday.

For Israel, the documents could prove problematic because they show the earnestness with which the Palestinians pushed for a deal, despite Israeli protestations that they have no partner for peace.

As they try to limit the fallout from the documents disclosed by al-Jazeera TV, the prospects for renewed negotiations toward a two-state solution appear to be growing even more faint.

A bid in September by the United States to restart stalled peace talks collapsed almost as soon as it started amid disputes over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, territory that the Palestinians claim for a future state. Amid the impasse, U.S. officials have come and gone in recent weeks searching for new formulas to restart talks, which have failed to produce a Palestinian state during nearly two decades of fitful negotiations.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley acknowledged Monday that publication of the documents complicated U.S.-led peace efforts and will at least temporarily "make the situation more difficult than it already was."

The impact of the disclosures was especially profound Monday among Palestinians, with the Palestinian Authority leadership furiously backpedaling from the apparent concessions, the Islamist Hamas movement seeking to capitalize and much of the Palestinian public seemingly surprised at what their negotiators were willing to bargain away.

"It is a huge blow to the Palestinian leadership, and it's going to make it very difficult for them to stand before the Palestinian people and say they are representing the Palestinian interests," said Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem and longtime American diplomat.

Many of the compromises discussed in the 1,600 pages of memos, minutes, e-mails and other documents being released this week by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV network on air and on its Web site are well-known to veteran watchers of the peace process.

At the Camp David summit brokered by President Bill Clinton in 2000, the Palestinians were open to surrendering claims over parts of East Jerusalem settled by Jewish Israelis, negotiators said. But what's most damaging in the newly released documents is the way Palestinian negotiators are "seen as conceding more and more" while getting "absolutely nothing from Israeli negotiators," Abington said.

The United States will suffer a credibility blow as well, he predicted. "The impression one gets from reading these documents is the United States is, by default, on the side of Israel in the negotiations," he said.

Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank reacted angrily Monday to the documents' release, denying much of the content and lashing out at the Persian Gulf state of Qatar for allowing them to be published. Al-Jazeera began releasing the documents Sunday.

Demonstrators attacked al-Jazeera's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, breaking a window and spray-painting graffiti that said "al Jazeera = Israel.'' More protests against al-Jazeera were planned in the West Bank for Tuesday.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator who is featured prominently in the documents as one of those willing to surrender control of large swaths of East Jerusalem inhabited by Jews, said the documents "misrepresented our positions" and took "statements and facts out of context."

Some analysts said the swiftness with which the Palestinians sought to dismiss the reports highlighted how little the Palestinian leadership has done to prepare the Palestinian public for concessions.

Meanwhile, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, tried to capitalize on the documents' revelations as part of its bid to portray itself as the true, legitimate leader of the Palestinian people. While the group remains in control of Gaza after seizing the territory in a battle with the rival Fatah party in 2007, its ability to operate in the West Bank has eroded amid Palestinian and Israeli crackdowns there.

"What surprised us is the scope of the betrayal in the documents, especially towards Jerusalem," Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader in Gaza, told al-Aqsa radio, a Hamas-backed station. "But we, in Hamas, are not surprised from this group in the Fatah government, that it engages in these kinds of concessions.''

The Israeli government had no official comment on the documents' release. Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party, who led negotiations in 2008, said Monday, "Today, it is clear that during the previous government we established - in a serious and responsible way - all of the foundations . . . necessary to end the conflict."

But her successor, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, sharply contradicted that assessment, saying the revelations prove only that reaching a deal with the Palestinians is impossible.

zachariaj@washpost.com Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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