Tue, Jan 25, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Leak of confidential documents lifts lid on Middle East talks

The Guardian, LONDON

The biggest leak of confidential documents in the history of the Middle East conflict has revealed that Palestinian negotiators secretly agreed to accept Israel’s annexation of all but one of the settlements built illegally in occupied East Jerusalem. This unprecedented proposal was one of a string of concessions that will cause shockwaves among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world.

A cache of thousands of pages of confidential Palestinian records covering more than a decade of negotiations with Israel and the US has been obtained by al-Jazeera TV and shared exclusively with the Guardian. The papers provide an extraordinary and vivid insight into the disintegration of the 20-year peace process, which is now regarded as all but dead.

As well as the annexation of all East Jerusalem settlements except Har Homa, the Palestine papers show Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders privately suggested swapping part of the flashpoint East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah for land elsewhere.

Most controversially, they also proposed a joint committee to take over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount holy sites in Jerusalem’s old city — the neuralgic issue that helped sink the Camp David talks in 2000 after former PLO leader Yasser Arafat refused to concede sovereignty around the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques.

The offers were made in 2008 and 2009, in the wake of former US president George W. Bush’s Annapolis conference, and were privately hailed by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, as giving Israel “the biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew name for Jerusalem] in history” to resolve the world’s most intractable conflict. Israeli leaders, backed by the US government, said the offers were inadequate.

Intensive efforts to revive talks by the administration of US President Barack Obama foundered last year over Israel’s refusal to extend a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction. Prospects are now uncertain amid increasing speculation that a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict is no longer attainable — and fears of a new war.

Many of the 1,600 leaked documents — drawn up by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials and lawyers working for the British-funded PLO Negotiations Support Unit and including extensive verbatim transcripts of private meetings — have been independently authenticated by the Guardian and corroborated by former participants in the talks and intelligence and diplomatic sources.

The Guardian’s coverage is supplemented by WikiLeaks cables, emanating from the US consulate in Jerusalem and embassy in Tel Aviv. Israeli officials also kept their own records of the talks, which may differ from the confidential Palestinian accounts.

The overall impression that emerges from the documents, which stretch from 1999 to last year, is of the weakness and growing desperation of PA leaders as failure to reach agreement or even halt all settlement temporarily undermines their credibility in relation to their Hamas rivals; the papers also reveal the unyielding confidence of Israeli negotiators and the often dismissive attitude of US politicians toward Palestinian representatives.

PA leaders are likely to be embarrassed by the revelation of private concessions that go far beyond what much of their population would regard as acceptable.

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