For those who are home, and for those who are on the way. For those who support the historic and just return of the land of Israel to its people, forever loyal to their inheritance, and its restoration.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, has always highlighted "return" of the "refugees" as a cause to which he has particular devotion. He fashions himself as a "refugee" -- although he has admitted that his family left voluntarily from Sfat (an Israeli city in the Galil), where he was born -- and has consistently said that he will not retreat from the demand that the "refugees" be permitted to go back to their homes and villages inside of Israel's Green Line.
Whether this is truly an issue dear to his heart or a position that he knows he must take because his people will accept nothing less is in a sense irrelevant. The point is that Abbas has dutifully adhered to this line regarding return.
As a matter of fact, there is a substantial school of thought that says that PA insistence on "return" is a device for destroying Israel from within, and that Abbas's position is likely tactical.
Now comes the leak released last night by Al Jazeera to tell us that in a March 2008 meeting Abbas had with the Negotiation Support Unit, he said:
"On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take five million or even one million -- that would mean the end of Israel." He then said that as Israel has offered to take 5,000, which didn't even satisfy family reunification demands, there would have to be compensation.
Are we supposed to believe this?
Yesterday I indicated that I thought there was a good chance that the leaks contained distortions if not fabrication. This particular leak convinces me that it indeed is likely the case. For I find it difficult to accept that Abbas said precisely what he is reported to have said here.
He might have said something like this: "We can try to push for all of the refugees to return, as a matter of principle, but let's face it, the Israelis will never buy it. But the 5,000 that Olmert offered? An insult. It doesn't even account for full family reunification. We cannot simply accept this, it would look very bad. Let's push as hard as we can. Talk about the rights of the people, need to reunify families. Maybe we can get acceptance of 50,000. Then, in the end we'll have to go with some compensation package as well."
But to simply acquiesce to only 5,000 returning, without protest, saying that it's not "logical" to expect the Israelis to accept as much as a million? It's a long way from 5,000 to a million, with a lot of ground in-between. And since when is he logical with regard to dealing with Israel?
Even as I write this, I am mindful that, according to YNet, Nabil Sha'ath, a former member of the PA negotiating team, gave an interview with Al-Jazeera last night -- in defiance of an order from Ramallah -- indicating that the documents were real.
One highly reliable source I checked with commented that "no one says the documents aren't real-- they are not forgeries." But, as this source acknowledged, this still leaves room with regard to material left out, twisting of what was said, and so on.
Barry Rubin, whom I was also in touch with on this, reminds us that it is possible for real documents to have been altered and for Al-Jazeera and the Guardian to have misquoted what the original documents said. We must remember that Al-Jazeera was not provided with word-for-word transcripts of what was said at meetings, but notes.
What bothers me is the question of why Sha'ath would have defied the PA, and given an interview that further damns it. This makes his interview suspect in my eyes.
I'm picking up all sorts of analyses: That what the PA offered was not such a big deal, when you consider what they didn't offer. Or that what they said in private is so different from what they said in public because they weren't preparing their people for peace. Or that this proves we really have a partner for peace after all. These various takes assume that there is solid veracity in the leaks.
But I'm not going to go there.
Khaled Abu Toameh, writing about this in the JPost today, does not specifically say that the leaks are fabricated. But he does refer to a "show trial," which carries certain implications. This, in part, is what he wrote:
"After assuming the role of prosecutor and judge, Al- Jazeera, the Arab world’s most influential TV network, has ruled that the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have betrayed their people and must therefore step down from the stage.
"In other words, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his men have been convicted of high treason – which, in the Arab and Islamic world, is a crime punishable by death.
"Al-Jazeera is now waiting for the executioner (the Palestinians, in this case) to carry out the death sentence.
"...The TV station has already decided that the defendants are guilty of the...charges against them. The station’s unequivocal message to Palestinians is that Abbas and his men are traitors who need to be removed from the scene, and the sooner the better.
"It’s hard to see how, in light of this damning verdict, the PA will be able to salvage what’s left of its credibility. Al- Jazeera has succeeded in instilling in the minds of many Palestinians and Arabs the belief that the leaders of the PA are a bunch of corrupt traitors who serve Israeli and American interests.
"The damage to the PA’s image and reputation is colossal and irreparable.."
This, my friends, is the story. Not a parsing of whether Abbas might give more than he has publicly indicated, or what it means that his private and public words seem so different.
Abbas as a politician has been weakened, perhaps fatally. The PA has been weakened.
It was highly unlikely in any event that Abbas was going to return to the table, no matter what the Quartet may be proclaiming or what might be happening in meetings he has with Ross and others. But now? He might prefer to resign and go into hiding in a distant land rather than sit down opposite Netanyahu. Were he to meet with the Israeli prime minister, it would be seen by his people as immediately suspect, a betrayal.
Abu Toameh refers to a "death sentence" for high treason. Do not take this metaphorically. Abbas knows full well that his life is in danger.
And let's take this one step further. Roee Nahmias, writing on YNet, describes the "ambush-like coverage planned in advance, [in which] network reporters were deployed in the field." An Al-Jazeera correspondent went into a refugee camp in Lebanon "in order to elicit reactions to 'the Palestinian renouncement of the right of return.' Meanwhile, several commentators in the studios were fuming, including the editor of the hawkish London-based al-Quds al-Arabi, Abdul Bari Atwan, a Palestinian who constantly slams senior PA officials."
So Al-Jazeera not only fomented the current situation, it is willfully fueling it.
"...one should not be making light of al-Jazeera’s effort (and not for the first time) to present PA officials as willing collaborators with Israel, who sell off their people and make concessions behind closed doors...
"...the overall package presented by the Qatar-based network was a resounding 'You sold out Palestine.'
"The situation throughout the Middle East is volatile ever since the Tunisia upheaval. Arab rulers are waiting for the dust to settle and for order to be restored. Yet precisely at this time, al-Jazeera arrived with its bombastic reports, which directly undermine the legitimacy of Palestinian Authority leaders, even if most of the 'concessions' were already known in advance and thoroughly covered by the media before.
"Such reports and claims, which have been repeated in various forms and more forcefully in recent years, are gradually weakening the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority. It is being portrayed as a weak, submissive, failed and corrupt entity, as opposed to Yasser Arafat’s era, for example. And when this is the impression created by the most popular network in the Arab world, can one assume this will not have future implications?
"Even if the likelihood of this is slim at this time, we should take into account the possibility that ongoing erosion in legitimacy and image may one day provoke riots against the PA, or at least prompt a power struggle amongst its leaders, thereby dramatically toughening its positions.
"If one day we see bloody riots in the West Bank similar to the ones we saw in Gaza, it would be worthwhile to go back to the latest al-Jazeera project. This is yet another step, and apparently a deliberate one, in weakening the PA, a move that one party stands to benefit from: The Hamas movement. It is for good reason that Hamas already uses the term 'popular revolution' in its reports." (Emphasis added)
We should not be surprised by this state of affairs, for Qatar, which is the home base for Al-Jazeera, provides support for Hamas:
In 2008, The Washington Times cited a key Abbas aide as saying that Qatar provides Hamas with millions each month -- in addition to which, it provides political support and hosts Hamas officials in Doha regularly.
In 2009, terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, writing on the Counterterrorism blog, addressed Qatar's "diplomatic journey away from the Arab consensus -- via support for Islamist extremists -- toward an alliance with Syria and Iran."
Altogether the situation with Qatar is both difficult and somewhat schizoid. For the US has had significant ties with Qatar, and, in fact, in 2003 directed the war on Iraq from an American base in Qatar.
The direction in which Qatar is moving seems to me a spit in the eye for the US. The current undermining of the chances of furthering the peace process so fervently sought by the US, if nothing else, is problematic for Obama.
Yesterday, State Department spokesman JP Crowley allowed in a press conference that the leaks complicate efforts to forge a peace deal. However, he clarified, this will not slow the president's work towards that goal.
But let us step back and look at the big picture:
Hezbollah is about to take control in Lebanon, to our north. Iran is directly implicated in what's going on there.
To our east, the PA is weakened and an Iranian-supported Hamas is more likely to take over, as the result of machinations by Qatar, which has ties to Iran.
Hello there, in Washington! If Obama truly wants to see peace in this part of the world, he should table his efforts to get Abbas to the table (Which efforts would likely include increased pressure on Israel to offer the PA "confidence building measures," since it was weakened.)
Obama's absolute priority should be stopping Iran in its destructive tracks and in increasing US deterrence in this part of the world.
I visited Hevron in November 2000 after the outbreak of the Rosh Hashanah War to see what could be done to assist in the face of the growing daily attacks on the community. After returning to work for the community in the summer of 2001, a bond and a love was forged that grows to this day. My wife Melody and I merited to be married at Ma'arat HaMachpela and now host visitors from throughout the world every Shabbat as well as during the week. Our goal, "Time to come Home!"