Al Jazeera and The Guardian newspaper are publishing what they claim are hundreds of previously secret Palestinian documents about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in the latter Bush and Olmert years, especially 2007-2008. My first look at these documents, which cover a period when I was much involved in those negotiations, leads to three preliminary conclusions.
First, some of the papers seem inaccurate to me, going solely by memory. They put into people’s mouths words I do not recall them saying in meetings I attended. This is not shocking: written records of meetings can be inaccurate even when there’s a serious effort at accuracy. Moreover, Palestinian officials reviewing the documents after the meetings may have "improved" them, putting words in their own mouths (rather in the way our own members of Congress can "revise and extend" their remarks to improve them) or with less friendly objectives putting words in the mouths of others. Or, I may have missed parts of meetings or simply not be recalling accurately. But I would not take every one of these documents as necessarily 100 percent accurate.
Second, these negotiations over possible compromises will surprise no American and no Israeli. In the United States and in Israel there have been twenty years of discussions of the compromises needed for a final status agreement. This has not been the case among Palestinians, where the debate has been far less free. There are still constant calls among Palestinians and in Arab capitals for a complete return to the 1967 "borders," which are in fact the 1949 armistice lines and to which there will never be a return. Palestinians may be surprised to learn that their negotiators understood this quite well and that the negotiations were actually about how far from the 1949 lines a final deal might go.
Third, what some newspapers are calling "offers" or "agreements" made in the 2007-2008 negotiations are far less than that--are in fact most often preliminary probes or efforts to smoke out the other side. The Israelis and Palestinians never reached an agreement and in many areas, as the papers so far published show, were very far apart. It is often said that "everyone knows what a final status agreement will look like" but these documents powerfully undermine that conclusion; a good example here is the Palestinian refusal to accept that Maale Adumim, a "settlement" with a population just short of forty thousand that is actually a suburb of Jerusalem, will remain part of Israel. It may be true that the range of options is limited, but the negotiators never concluded on agreement and the proposal made by then-Prime Minister Olmert in 2008 was not accepted.
The release of these "Palestine Papers" may be healthy. Anything that helps Palestinian public opinion move toward greater realism about the compromises needed for peace is useful. The impact on specific individuals is a different matter, one to be played out in the coming days.