The release of the so-called "Palestine Papers" has sent the Palestinian Authority into a frenzied state of spin control. Over the weekend, al-Jazeera released leaked documents pertaining to Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations since the Annapolis Conference in November 2007. The 1,600 documents detail private conversations of Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, as well as their American interlocutors. The proverbial shocker, apparently, is that Palestinian leaders are fully aware of the compromises necessary to create a Palestinian state - and almost capable of delivering promises. But that is a far cry from the maximalist positions they espouse to their people. And their people are divided between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank. It remains unclear whom among the Palestinians the PA represents politically.
Nevertheless, according to the "Palestine Papers," the PA's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told President Barack Obama's advisor in a January 2010 meeting: "Israelis want the two-state solution but they don't trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians. What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state… what more can I give?"
Al-Jazeera's headlines are brimming with Erekat's quote. It's not just that he had a keen sense of a diplomatic reality already familiar in the West - namely that Palestinians will not receive 100% of the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, and the unlimited return of Palestinian refugees to Israel - it's that he even dared to use the Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalaim. He must be a closet Zionist, the comments read. Saeb Erekat will likely be hung out to dry for speaking about negotiating positions that are common and understood in the West but unknown in the Arab street for almost two decades.
Israel here to stay
The Erekat retrenchment came Monday in a piece he published in the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency: "[o]ur position has been the same for the past 19 years of negotiations: We seek to establish a sovereign and independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and to reach a just solution to the refugee issue based on their international legal rights, including those set out in (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194)." So much for flexibility; back to the maximalist positions Palestinian leaders have been falsely promising, lest Hamas' "Resistance" platform that calls for Israel's destruction become too popular on the streets of Ramallah.
Is this really Saeb Erekat's change of heart? Apparently not. While President Bill Clinton's White House was deciding on whether or not to host the now-famous and failed Camp David summit in July 2000, Dennis Ross - then and now a special Middle East envoy - hosted Israel's negotiator, Oded Eran, and Saeb Erekat for dinner a month before the Camp David summit. Erekat was pushing for two summits to solve the big issues and Ross explained that there would not be a summit unless he saw the makings of a deal.Ross recalls and quotes Erekat when he pressed him to explain what a deal looks like his 2004, tell-all book, The Missing Peace: "Again, he was to the point: on the land, 92% of the West Bank to the Palestinian state, with the Israelis swapping an equivalent amount of land next to Gaza - more than doubling the size of Gaza; on refugees, 'let them deposit a number' they can admit to Israel and 'give us the principle of (UN General Assembly resolution) 194 or right of return'; on Jerusalem, the Israelis have eight large neighborhoods, counting Ma'ale Adumim, Givat Ze'ev, Pisgat Ze'ev, and Gilo in East Jerusalem; 'those become a part of Israel. The Arab neighborhoods become part of Palestine, and one municipality will deal with transportation, water, electricity, and sewage'."
Erekat's retrenchment is part of a far bigger problem. Autocratic Arab leaders have made a habit of diverting their population's eyes towards the problem of Israel's existence. The leaders understand that Israel is here to stay and as many cables from WikiLeaks demonstrate, they have a common cause with the Jewish State when it comes to regional security such as a nuclear-motivated Iran.
The problem is that Arab leaders - including the Palestinian Authority - have yet to level with their people. What is taken for granted in the Western world is problematic and sticky in the Arab world. The truth is that until the Palestinian people (and their leaders) make peace with the notion that they will never have all of Jerusalem and 100% of the West Bank, or unlimited refugees returning to Israel, peace will remain a pipedream.