Leaked Documents Further Strain Mideast Peace Talks

Robert Malley, director, International Crisis Group

Documents leaked by Al-Jazeera appear to show that Palestinian leaders were willing to make broad concessions in negotiations with Israel. The papers have created a furor in the Middle East, but some say they reveal little new information.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In WikiLeaks style, Al Jazeera, on Sunday, started to publish leaked documents from Palestinian records of talks with Israel and the United States over the past 11 years. The documents purport to reveal major compromises and deals offered by Palestinian leaders. Palestinian officials question the accuracy of the documents, and protesters vandalized the Al Jazeera bureau on the West Bank. Another set of papers is due out today. The fourth and final batch is expected tomorrow.

If you have questions about what the papers say and what they mean, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email:talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Go and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Robert Malley served as special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. He's now director of the International Crisis Group and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (Director, International Crisis Group): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And have you learned anything surprising?

Mr. MALLEY: You know, I think the most surprising thing is less what's in the documents themselves, less the raw material, than the reactions it's generating. And I think it tells us something about the disconnect between what the negotiators have been doing now for 10 years. And, really, there isn't that much new in what we're reading and what the Palestinian public expected that they were doing.

CONAN: For example, the documents suggest that Palestinian leaders were willing to compromise a great deal on the right of return, saying as few as 10,000 -1,000 Palestinians per year returning to what's now Israel.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, yes, although it's not clear that that was the Palestine position. They may have spoken of more, but they certainly said that it was a symbolic number they were interested in. And this does contrast with some of the public statements they've been making about never giving up on the right of return. Again, it's a - it really talks about a bigger debate about how much negotiations should be kept secret, at what cost is that secrecy, when, in fact, the publics may not be prepared for the compromises that their leaders are discussing behind closed doors.

CONAN: Should those compromises ever be embodied in actual treaties or proposals.

Mr. MALLEY: Right.

CONAN: And the other, I guess, big position, well, that might contradict public positions, has to do with the status of East Jerusalem. That, indeed, Palestinian leaders, apparently - and these were the leaders from Ramallah -willing to compromise on returning much of that city to Israeli control...

Mr. MALLEY: Well, again, it's been...

CONAN: ...or leaving much of that city in Israeli control.

Mr. MALLEY: It's been a consistent Palestine position for at least 10 years. When I was involved in negotiations at Camp David in 2000, the Palestinians had said that they will be prepared to allow Israel to annex Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Of course they wanted land in exchange for that, but I don't think that the Palestinian leaders had explicitly said that to their own people. And whether their people will accept it is a different matter.

CONAN: And, of course, you mentioned the reactions of the Palestinian authority. Officials there are saying, hey, wait a minute. These are being taken out of context. Some of them are entirely fabricated.

Mr. MALLEY: You know, the Palestine leadership has obviously been taken aback by this and they were a bit flat-footed. They have had three reactions almost simultaneously - one is to say that's a fabrication, second is to say they're taken out of context, and third, but we're only hearing this from some, is to say yes indeed. These are our positions that are consistent with the positions that we've taken for a long time. And, in fact, that are consistent with Palestinian national interests. The problem is you can't really reconcile those three positions, and they don't seem to have had time to coordinate what they wanted to say.

CONAN: And there is another Palestinian leadership, and that is, of course, Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And they are saying, this shows Palestinians how you're being sold out by the leaders of Al Fatah.

Mr. MALLEY: That's right. And they're going to certainly try to make as much out of this as they can. And there are others - mainly, I mean, Palestinians abroad, but also Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and the refugee camps -who are going - who are angry and who are going to express that anger. You know, one question is how much credibility the current Palestinian leadership had remaining. And so how much is it going to really hurt it, in fact, when so many had already assumed that the leadership was prepared for compromises such as these?

CONAN: And as you look at these documents, do they seem genuine to you?

Mr. MALLEY: There's no reason, I see, to doubt it. They seem authentic. Of course I have no reason to doubt it or to vouch for them. But they sound right. And, again, nothing that I'm reading sounds inconsistent with what I've heard in private and what several Palestinian leaders have said, now, for at least a decade.

CONAN: And while most of the impact has been on the Palestinian authority in Ramallah, on the West Bank, there are two other players in these documents and that's, of course, beginning with Israel, and there are revelations there about Tzipi Livni, then the foreign minister, when she was negotiating.

Mr. MALLEY: Although, in her case, I think this will not do her any harm because she is very consistent in what she says in public and in private. And one of the interesting things, just from a negotiation's point of view, is how both sides address the talks differently.

The Palestinians give it a lot - give a lot of information. They seem and almost to be sort of begging the Israelis to recognize the extent of their concessions, and the foreign minister at the time who is negotiating on the Israeli side, Tzipi Livni, is almost like a lawyer simply asking questions, saying, well, what do you mean by this, never revealing her position. I don't think it's gonna do the Israeli's much harm.

CONAN: And the United States also plays a role in many of these meetings.

Mr. MALLEY: Yes. I think one thing we see is the basic ineffectiveness of the U.S., and this goes this is not a comment on the Obama administration or the Bush administration; it's a comment about the U.S. in general - their basic ineffectiveness in shaping the positions of either side, but I think we really didn't need the Palestinian papers, the Palestinian reports to know that.

CONAN: Rob Malley, director of the International Crisis Group, formerly special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs. 800-989-82255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Zuri(ph) joins us on - Zuri, calling us from Charlottesville.

ZURI (Caller): Yes, hi. I'm curious to know if Israel can be thought of as being genuine in the peace process anymore. It seems to me that the Palestinians have made significant concessions in their position over time, and none seem to be acceptable to the Israelis. To what extent does that mean the peace process is kind of a stalemate?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, I think there's no doubt that the peace process has been under stalemate for a whole host of reasons, and this simply adds perhaps one more nail in that coffin.

I think what I was saying earlier, really goes to the caller's question, which is that the Israeli attitude in these negotiations appears to be tell us more, tell us what you're prepared to do, and then saying what's not enough rather than putting clear proposals on the table - other than in once instance at the very end of the - of Prime Minister Olmert's tenure when he did put a proposal on the table. I'll leave it to others to assess the genuineness of one side's position or the other.

CONAN: Does it speak to - and this may be a part of Zuri's point - the difference in power between the two sides?

Mr. MALLEY: The imbalance, one could describe as the asymmetries between the two sides, are staggering. One side controls the land, controls the economy, controls the airspace, controls basically everything.

The other side, and we see this in these talks, is reduced often to the role of a supplicant, saying, you need to understand how much we're prepared to give you, so please give us something back in return.

CONAN: Zuri, thanks very much for the call.

ZURI: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And the question that many people have is, so who leaked these documents? I'm assuming you don't know the answer to that, but who benefits most from the leak of these documents?

Mr. MALLEY: I mean, the speculation is that it does come from Palestinian sources - there's no doubt about it - given these are notes that Palestinians took. Who benefits? You know, in a short term, I think, or in the immediate sense, is that the critics of the Palestinian authority and the Palestinian negotiators are probably going to benefit because they're putting them on the defensive.

The real question in the long term is whether by airing all this out, does it make it harder to reach a settlement because people are going to say, we reject this, so how could a future leadership put it on the table?

Or does it make it easier? Although that's - it's hard to see today, but could it possibly make it easier because these ideas are not going to be out in the public, and it might therefore be easier to sell it to their people when a deal comes about. A more - I would lean more on the pessimistic side, but we'll have to see.

CONAN: That's been the side to bet on in the Middle East...

Mr. MALLEY: Indeed.

CONAN: ...for some years. The - nevertheless, some of the territorial arrangements, in terms of a Middle East peace settlement, and most of the territorial arrangements, have been largely agreed upon for sometime.

We know with some precision - given the various agreements that have been reached at various places, at Camp David and various other negotiating venues -what an agreement might look like. It has to do with other matters like the right of return, like the political will on both sides, like the strength of both sides in the negotiations to withstand their critics within Israel and within the Palestinian community as well.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, yes and no. I mean, I think the notion that we know what the solution looks like, including on territory, may have taken a little a bit of a hit with these documents. Again, not something that is that surprising, but, you know, there are some settlements that the Israelis say we can't have an agreement unless you give us those settlements, and the Palestinians say we can't sign an agreement if we give them back to you. So I think there's still gaps, including on the borders issue, which people tend to identify the easiest. But that's a very relative term. I think we've see, in the document's, real gaps, serious gaps, including between a centrist Israeli government and the current Palestine leadership or the Palestine leadership at the time, which were the same. So today, with a right wing Israeli government, the odds of reaching agreement seem much, much lower.

But I think we've seeing other issues as well, as you mentioned, which is it's not just reaching an agreement between two leaders. It's also sending it to their public, and that's why, say, was most interesting today is to look at how the Palestine public is reacting. If they reject what's on the table and say this is unacceptable, and the Palestinians won't even - won't be able to sell this to their people, let alone something more that will be even more forward leaning, which Israelis will insist upon.

CONAN: We see demonstrations outside the Al-Jazeera office on the West Bank. Is that the reaction of the Palestinian people? Is that being orchestrated by the Palestinian authority?

Mr. MALLEY: A bit of both, probably more orchestration that genuine, although Im told - the people I spoken to in the West Bank, there are some who feel that this really is a plot by Al-Jazeera and by Qatar, the country that hosts Al-Jazeera, to try to undermine the leadership of the Palestinian authority and the PLO. My sentiment is that, more broadly, Palestinians are looking at this and either saying this confirms what we thought about this leadership or this surprises us because it shows the leadership was prepared to make concessions we werent prepared to accept.

CONAN: Qatar, the emirate there, supported Al-Jazeera when it was first created...

Mr. MALLEY: That' right.

CONAN: ...probably it still does, financially. And that leadership - that emirate has been much closer to Hamas?

Mr. MALLEY: It's been closer to Hamas. And again, I don't know that Al-Jazeera has to ask for permission from the emir to publish this and to air these documents. But certainly, they're using it - the Palestinian leadership is using this to say this is people who are anti-Palestinians, who are - don't have Palestinian interests at heart, who were trying to undermine us.

CONAN: Let's go next to Anne, Anne with us from San Mateo.

ANNE (Caller): Hi. I'm just wondering - it seems that the Western world sentiment has often sided with the Israelis. I was wondering if this will shift that sentiment towards the Palestinian since it shows the Palestinians willingness to concede, and maybe we'll give them more credibility.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, listen, Anne, when I speak to Palestinians, that's a silver lining they're hoping to see. Right now, theyre mainly worried about what it's going to their reputations at home. But, you know, this notion that there was no Palestine partner was probably - it was a myth to begin with. I'm not sure that this is going to make a difference to those who don't believe this Palestine leadership as a partner. And it's going to confirm the view of those who believe it is, including many Israelis who do.

So I'm not sure how much it's going to shift public opinion. International public opinion, in fact, has been quite sympathetic to the Palestinians, but they haven't been able to transit that sympathy into changes on the ground or changes at the negotiating table.

CONAN: Anne, thanks very much. You say the myth of no Palestinian partner - you have a divided Palestinian leadership.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, that's right. I mean, the notion - to say there's no Palestine partner because they're not prepared to make concessions, that's a myth. To say that there's a problem in the legitimacy of the Palestine leadership, I think, that is a very real problem. And I think one of the lessons from these documents is to look at it and say, it's very hard for a divided leadership to make concessions, and then survived those concessions -because it's going to be criticized by the other side, Hamas.

If you had a more united Palestine leadership, not only could they sustain the criticism, they probably could put forward proposals that incorporate many of these concessions because they have the legitimacy and the credibility and the support of their people. That's not entirely the case, and thats been a problem ever since the Palestine national movement has been divided.

CONAN: The talks are stalled. Does this make it, in the short term, easier or more difficult to restart?

Mr. MALLEY: To restart the unity talks?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MALLEY: I think it probably makes it harder. Every time something like this happens one side, in this case, Hamas, believes it has the advantage and therefore sees no interest in compromising. Tomorrow, Fatah will feel it has the advantage and will feel the same way, I don't think the prospects are very high.

CONAN: Rob Malley, thanks very much for your time, as always.

Mr. MALLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group. And he joined us here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

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