Monday, January 24, 2011

Palestinian leaders fight back against peace talks leaks

Palestinian leaders have fought back against accusations that they had betrayed their own people, claiming that leaked minutes detailing secret concessions offered to Israel had been heavily distorted.

Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader, was forced to defend his record after Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, began to release nearly 1,700 classified documents purportedly provided by a source within the Palestinian Authority.

Mr Abbas has been left facing a crisis of credibility among many ordinary Palestinians after the papers suggested that his negotiators were prepared to surrender nearly all East Jerusalem’s Jewish settlements to Israel under a peace deal.

Speaking in Cairo, Mr Abbas insisted that the offer had been misrepresented by Al Jazeera, which had deliberately confused Palestinian and Israeli positions during secret talks.

“What is intended is a mix-up,” he said. “I have seen them yesterday present things as Palestinian but they are Israeli. This is therefore intentional.”

As Mr Abbas struggled to explain himself, Al Jazeera was preparing to release a second tranche of the “Palestine Papers” on Monday evening. It was expected to reveal further concessions on the sensitive subject of Palestinian refugees.

Palestinian leaders have insisted in public that they will never compromise on the “right of return” of the refugees, who fled or left their homes after wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967.

At the negotiating table, however, Palestinian representatives have struck a more conciliatory approach and it has long been understood that only a symbolic number of refugees would be allowed to return under a peace deal.

Senior Palestinian officials accused Al Jazeera of peddling a mixture of “fabrication and half-truths” by deliberately failing to understand the difference between public rhetoric and pragmatic diplomacy.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a leading Palestinian negotiator, said the broadcaster had tried to present concessions offered on East Jerusalem as dramatic revelations even though they were already widely known.

“It was pure theatre, accompanied by horror film-style music,” he said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“There is nothing that we hide now and there is nothing we have hidden in the past. We published (all this) before and gave copies to every single delegation that has visited us in the past two years at least.” But such explanations are unlikely to win over critics of Mr Abbas.

On the streets of Ramallah, residents expressed dismay that Mr Abbas seemed prepared to go much further than Yasser Arafat, his predecessor, in offering concessions while securing little from Israel in return.

Yet there was little to suggest that anything in the leaks so far could lead to street protests or the fall of Mr Abbas, analysts said.

The only sign of public discontent was, in fact, directed at Al Jazeera.

Supporters of Mr Abbas’s Fatah party broke into the building housing the station’s Ramallah bureau and smashed security cameras and door panels, until they were forced out by police.

Graffiti daubed on the walls outside the bureau read: “al-Jazeera are Israeli spies.”

“If the police had not arrived when they did, they would have destroyed the whole building,” said Mahmoud Marshoud, the security manager of a bank on a lower floor.

Despite signs of panic among Palestinian officials, some foreign observers said the papers suggested that Mr Abbas and his colleagues had been shown in a favourable light because they appeared more willing to compromise than Israel.

“Even the most sceptical reader must conclude that the papers blow a huge hole in Israel’s claims that, in the Palestinians, they don’t have a partner for peace,” said Richard Burden, chairman of the Britain-Palestine all party parliamentary group.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the leaks, but added that Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, had made major concessions that were rejected by Palestinian negotiators.

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