Analysis: Leaks deepen Palestinian split

 Palestinian Fatah supporters hold flags and signs during a rally supporting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and against Al-Jazeera, in the West ...

Mideast Israel Palestinians Talks

Palestinian Fatah supporters hold flags and signs during a rally supporting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and against Al-Jazeera, in the West ...

If an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal seemed remote before, it looks downright unattainable after a stormy week of leaks of confidential Mideast protocols by Al-Jazeera TV.
The disclosures hurt the credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas among his people, weakening him as a leader. They deepened the chasm between him and Hamas, distancing already faint hopes of restoring Palestinian unity as the Islamic militants burned him in effigy and branded him a traitor.
The papers also affirmed that there seems virtually no chance of a deal between Abbas and hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without more forceful U.S. intervention.
If Abbas and Netanyahu's more pragmatic predecessor, Ehud Olmert, couldn't close the gaps _ even if they came close on some issues, as the transcripts show _ it's unlikely the current leaders will be able to. The Obama administration says it hasn't given up, but hasn't signaled whether it's ready to put its own ideas on the table.
On substance, the documents haven't offered many surprises.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, but are ready to adjust the border in a land swap to let Israel to keep some of the Jewish settlements it has build on occupied land.
In 2008, Abbas and Olmert got down to details, with Israel asking to annex 6.5 percent of the West Bank and the Palestinians offering to trade 1.9 percent. As part of the swap, Abbas was ready to let Israel keep all but one of the Jewish enclaves built in east Jerusalem after 1967, now home to 200,000 Israelis.
While Abbas had not not said publicly that he offered to give up large tracts of east Jerusalem, it couldn't have come as a shock to Palestinians. Such a tradeoff was already proposed a decade ago by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, as part of parameters still widely seen today as the foundation of any deal.
Perhaps most damaging for Abbas were his private comments on the fate of several million Palestinan refugees and their descendants. Officially, the Palestinian position is that refugees should be able to choose whether they want to return to lost property in Israel, move to a future Palestinian state, stay in their host countries or settle elsewhere.
Israel has said it would at best accept a nominal number of returnees, arguing that a mass resettlement to Israel would destroy the state's Jewish character.
The leaks quoted Abbas as telling Palestinian negotiators in a 2009 meeting that it is "illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million or indeed 1 million." Such a demand, he said, "would mean the end of Israel." However, Israel's offer at the time, to take 5,000, is unacceptable, he added.
Abbas has never shared such assessments with the Palestinian public.
In part, he may have wanted to avoid making inadvertent concessions to Israel by discussing the issue openly. But he may also have been fearful of a massive outcry. The "right of return" goes to the emotional core of the conflict with Israel, since a majority of Palestinians live in exile, including camps scattered across the region.
Some argue the leaks could force a more candid public debate among Palestinians.
"The papers have made it clear to every single refugee that the right of return is not part of a future deal between the PLO and Israel," said West Bank analyst Khalil Shaheen. "Now everything has become clear and the refugees should decide without any illusion."
However, others say Al-Jazeera deliberately incited against Abbas, making rational debate difficult.
"Things were either taken out of context or given the worst interpretation, with a very clear objective of getting the Palestinians angry and trying to strike at the credibility of the negotiators," said Hanan Ashrawi, a leading PLO member. "Some say, okay, now things are out in the open ... Others say this is treason."
Abbas seems to have survived the tumultuous week of nightly broadcasts largely intact, judging by the response in the West Bank, where his Palestinian Authority is based. His Fatah movement led a few rallies in his support, while critics stayed at home.
In Gaza, run by Hamas since a 2007 takeover, the Islamic militants jumped at the chance to discredit their Western-backed rival, leading thousands in chants of "traitors go home."
Relations between the rivals were tense before, but this week's attacks on Abbas were unusually harsh.
"This will deepen the already bad situation and diminish even the slim chances of bringing them (Hamas and Fatah) back together again," said Khaled Hroub, a Mideast analyst at Cambridge University.
The Palestinian split is a major obstacle to any peace deal, because Abbas cannot negotiate for all Palestinians.
The Obama administration's attempts to start talks between Abbas and Netanyahu never got off the ground, except for a brief round in September. Abbas says he won't negotiate as long as Netanyahu builds in settlements and the U.S. fails to acknowledge the 1967 border as a baseline _ a stance that may have shielded him from worse criticism at home this week.
But if Washington tries to revive negotiations now, it may face even greater difficulties.
Israel's government has become more hardline, with the recent departure of the remaining dovish members, following a split in the Labor Party.
Moshe Yaalon, a senior Cabinet member, said the conflict can be managed, not solved, because gaps are too wide. "We claimed from the beginning of our term that there is no way to reach a final settlement with the Palestinians within one year or two years," he said.
After the Al-Jazeera leaks, Abbas may also be more reluctant to make concessions.
Even if the Netanyahu government were to come around to the Olmert positions, it's unlikely Abbas could offer now what he offered then, said Alon Liel, a former senior Israeli diplomat.
"The leaks did not bring us closer to peace," Liel said. "If at all, they damaged the chances _ if they were at all around."
Additional reporting by Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Josef Federman in Jerusalem.
Karin Laub has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987.

Updated : 2021-01-25 19:11 GMT+08:00