Jewish Lobbyists Still Skeptical of Palestinian Offers Of Concessions

Leaked Documents Don’t Seem To Have Changed Many Minds

Talks: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left)
and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in
Jerusalem in 2008.
Talks: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet in Jerusalem in 2008.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 26, 2011, issue of February 04, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A video clip produced last October by the American Jewish Committee aimed to explain the reason for the repeated failures of the Middle East peace process. “The one word that frustrated over 60 years of hope for peace: no,” the clip stated, going on to detail Israeli peace efforts in the past two decades while stressing that the Palestinian response has always been negative.

But do the recent revelations in the huge leak of peace process documents known as “the Palestine papers” put this worldview into question?

“This doesn’t change the situation,” said Aaron Jacob, AJC’s associate director of international affairs. “The Palestinians need to prove they are serious in their pursuit of peace.”

The trove of leaked documents published by Qatar-based satellite TV news network Al-Jazeera and by the U.K.’s Guardian can be spun in many ways. For some, the detailed accounts of Palestinian willingness to compromise on the core issues of Jerusalem and refugees seem to run counter to the notion that Arab refusal has been the source of the lack of peace in the region. But for most in the Jewish community, this notion remains unshaken.

“If anything, it shows that there is a deal to be done if the Palestinians agree to negotiate,” said Josh Block, a former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who recently launched his own consulting firm, Davis-Block. Block also argued that the new revelations “put the lie to the Palestinian refusal to negotiate” before Israel freezes all settlement activity, since it is clear that the Palestinians accepted that building in Jerusalem is not an obstacle.

Since the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David talks between Israel and the Palestinians, most in the mainstream pro-Israel groups have adopted the narrative offered by then prime minister Ehud Barak, one that defines the Palestinians as being the Dr. No of Middle East peacemaking. Some have resorted to Abba Eban’s famous quote that states the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

This narrative was backed at the time by President Clinton, who put the blame for the Camp David failure on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It was further reinforced following the failed 2008 attempts by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reach a final-status accord. The prevailing notion was that Olmert had made the Palestinians the most generous offer they’ve ever received, but Abbas recoiled.

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director Abraham Foxman, writing in the June 24 issue of the New York Review of Books, argued that at these talks Israelis “went back to a full and better offer for a Palestinian state and got nothing again.” Foxman did not return several calls from the Forward seeking comment on the new disclosures.

Most recently, after negotiations halted when Israel declined to extend a freeze on Israeli-Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinians’ refusal to meet with Israelis added weight to the “no partner” argument. Speaking at AIPAC’s March 2010 policy conference, Lee Rosenberg, the group’s president, said: “Ladies and gentlemen, let us be clear. The reluctant partner in this peace process is not Israel’s elected leader, Prime Minister Netanyahu. The recalcitrant partners are the Palestinians and their leader president, Mahmoud Abbas.”

According to the papers leaked to Al-Jazeera, which include minutes of meetings between Palestinian and Israeli negotiation teams as well as internal communications of the Palestinians negotiators, the Palestinians were willing to go further toward Israel than formerly known, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem. In a June 15, 2008, meeting, former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei proposed that all Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (excluding Har Homa) would be annexed to Israel and that the future of the Holy Basin in Old Jerusalem would be determined in separate negotiations. These proposals, which are in line with the parameters set forth by former president Clinton, go further than any Palestinian concession previously discussed.

“This definitely lays to rest the idea that Palestinians were not a partner or that Palestinians are not amenable for change,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. Kurtzer added that the documents, if accurate, seem to tear down the claim that the Palestinians did not respond to offers made by Olmert.

For those on the dovish end of the pro-Israel political map, the leaks are viewed as an opportunity to shift the mindset of Jewish groups toward a more favorable view of the Palestinian Authority.

Ori Nir, spokesman of Americans for Peace Now, said there are two key lessons the pro-Israel community should take from the documents: “One is that there is a worthy and capable Palestinian partner for peace, and the other is that when an Israeli government seriously engages with such a partner, it can significantly advance negotiations toward a peace agreement.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, agreed that the papers require the community to “think through” the notion that the Palestinians walked away from a generous offer made by Olmert. But Gutow, whose organization coordinates the work of hundreds of local Jewish community relations councils across the nation, argued that the pro-Israel community never gave up hope on the chances of reaching a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. “Most of us who are for Israel are also for negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said.

But in general, the news of Palestinians wiling to compromise was met with skepticism. Daily Alert, a news digest provided by the Conference of President of Major American Jewish Organizations, chose in its January 25 edition to quote opinion pieces arguing that there were no Palestinian concessions noticeable in the leaked documents.

Jacob of the AJC pointed to the fact that the Palestinians vehemently denied that they had ever agreed to the compromises that were detailed in the documents. He also stressed that this point makes clear that Palestinians are saying one thing behind closed doors and another in public. “As long as the Palestinian leadership is not preparing its people for compromise, peace will remain elusive,” he said.

The Israel Project chose to highlight on its website on January 25 a takeaway from the documents, that could work for all sides: “Palestinian Leaks Show That Talking Leads to Compromise,” the headline on the group’s website read.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.