Promises, Promises: Abbas Really Needs to Cut to the Chase



Despite his frequent threats to quit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas doesn't want to be tossed onto history's garbage heap with the rulers of Egypt and Tunisia, so he decided over the weekend to shuffle his Cabinet and schedule long-postponed elections.

Along the way, he also lost his chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, a 20-year veteran of verbal sparring with the Israelis. It may not seem important since peace talks are in the deep freeze while both sides refuse to talk unless the other changes his attitude toward Israeli settlements.

But settlements are just a sideshow. The real issue is whether Israel and the Palestinians want to make peace or avoid it by finding excuses to blame the other side for its absence.

In the meantime, neither side seems to grasp the importance of the wave of change sweeping across the region.

Erekat's resignation offers unintended insights into why peace remains so elusive. He took responsibility for the publication of 1,684 documents leaked to Al Jazeera television network by members of his Negotiations Support Unit, which advises Palestinian negotiators. Three foreign staffers believed responsible have since left the West Bank, and the unit has been disbanded.

The papers — now dubbed the "Palestine Papers" — reveal details of more than 10 years of secret talks with Israel. Erekat claimed that they were stolen and "deliberately" tampered with, and their contents taken out of context as part of a conspiracy by Al Jazeera and Israel — talk about your odd couple — to discredit the peace process and "bring down" the Abbas government.

But Erekat's problem was greater than that: The documents were authentic.

The real message of the papers was not how much the Palestinian leadership was willing to compromise, but how it misled its own people.

While Palestinian leaders were vowing steadfast support for a full right of return for refugees, the removal of all settlements, no compromise on borders, full return of all land lost in 1967, including all of eastern Jerusalem and the Old City, they were saying something very different to their Israeli counterparts.

In one document, Erekat was quoted telling the Israeli foreign minister: "It is no secret that on our map we proposed we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim (the city's Hebrew name) in history."

The number of refugees — he reportedly called them a "bargaining chip" — who could return would be limited to 5,000 over five years, the rest to be absorbed by the Palestinian state and other countries.

There would also be land swaps allowing Israel to retain some settlements.

The details revealed in the leaked documents were not new. Anyone closely following the peace process was aware of them, but the Palestinian people were being fed a different story and therefore were shocked.

Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, had failed to prepare them for the difficult compromises essential to sealing a peace agreement leading to a two-state solution.

Abbas and Erekat were accused of selling out their people. But the real betrayal was a failure to speak the truth to Palestinians and build a peace constituency.

The Palestine Papers also discredited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's claim that Israel has no partner for peace. More evidence appeared in the cover story in Sunday's New York Times magazine reporting that Abbas and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made "far-reaching" progress in negotiations.

Even though the Olmert-Abbas talks ended in late 2008, some of the blame for missed opportunities falls on the Obama administration.Washington failed to build on progress made in those talks as a starting point for its own stewardship. Instead, it diverted the process to a distracting dispute over settlements.

Now the question is, will the Palestinian leadership use the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections to speak the truth to its people or just feed them more empty promises?

Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist based in Washington, D.C.


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