Anyone familiar with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the past decade will find nothing surprising about the supposed revelations in the "Palestine papers" published this week by Qatar-based al-Jazeera and Britain's Guardian newspaper. Since at least the time of the 2000 Camp David talks brokered by President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leaders have accepted that Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem will be annexed by Israel in a two-state settlement and that only a handful of Palestinian refugees will "return" to the Jewish state - the leading "news" reported so far.
What's sensational about the leaked documents, which appear to come from advisers to the Palestinian negotiating team, is the way they are being marketed by the two news organizations - and how Palestinians are reacting to them.
"PA selling short the refugees," al-Jazeera announced Tuesday on its English-language Web site, referring to the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. "Barack Obama lifts then crushes Palestinian peace hopes," proclaimed the Guardian.
These are gross distortions. Not only have the reported Palestinian compromise positions been widely (if quietly) accepted by Arab governments, they were broadcast years ago in the Geneva Accord, a model agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that was endorsed by Abbas, among others. Israel responded with far-reaching compromises of its own: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a Palestinian state with sovereignty over Jerusalem and all but 6 percent of the West Bank in 2008. It was Abbas, not Olmert, who refused to go forward during those talks.
The leak of the documents seems motivated by a desire to bury the already moribund peace process. "Al-Jazeera is trying to destroy Abbas, and the Guardian wants to get Netanyahu," an Israeli official observed. They may well succeed, at least in the case of the aging and weak Palestinian president. Palestinian negotiators have felt obliged to repudiate the reported concessions, even as they are denounced by their hard-line rivals in the Hamas movement.
Of course, the Palestinians helped create their predicament. For years they have systematically failed to prepare their public for the concessions that will have to be part of any two-state settlement. Is it really conceivable that Israel would or could tear down East Jerusalem neighborhoods where 190,000 of its citizens now live, or allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to move inside its pre-1967 borders? No one seriously engaged in Middle East diplomacy thinks so. But that has never been explained to most Palestinians.
In fact, Abbas and his team are refusing to negotiate with Netanyahu in part because he has refused to freeze construction in East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods - the same neighborhoods that the Palestinians have agreed that Israel will keep.
The sad irony is that if the Palestinian papers reveal anything, it is the yawning gap that exists between the most generous Israeli and Palestinian offers. While accepting the inevitability of Israeli annexation in Jerusalem, the Palestinians are shown to reject the transfer to Israel of several of the largest West Bank settlements.
Abbas's number for returning refugees - 100,000 over 10 years - was 10 times higher than that of Olmert. Meanwhile, both Netanyahu and principal Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni oppose any return of refugees.
Now, thanks to al-Jazeera and the Guardian, Palestinians are retreating even from their not-good-enough ideas. Far from coming under pressure to make new concessions, Netanyahu and his right-wing government can relax in the knowledge that the peace process is going backward. Leaks of documents are supposed to provide clarity. The Palestine papers have merely muddied the diplomatic waters.