Leaked documents reveal Mideast talks' human side

Jan. 24: From right to left, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets with Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt.

Jan. 24: From right to left, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak meets with Palestinian authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt.  (AP)

Leaked documents from years of Mideast peace talks reveal a rarely seen human side of high-level diplomacy, showing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators joking, teasing, losing their tempers and even sympathizing with one another on thorny issues that have divided them for decades.

Released on the website of Al-Jazeera TV this week, the documents also disclose that the sides made significant progress on the conflict's toughest disputes before the talks broke down around the time of Israel's war in Hamas-ruled Gaza in early 2009.

"We were very close, more than ever before, to concluding an agreement of principles that would have led to an end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians," then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has written in a forthcoming memoir. Excerpts from it were published in Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily on Thursday.

An Al-Jazeera TV special on the documents focused on segments it says show Palestinian negotiators made major concessions, which prompted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accuse the station of distorting facts to undermine his Palestinian Authority.

But read in bulk, the documents give a blow-by-blow of hard-nosed bargaining while offering glimpses of the deeply personal interactions between negotiators.

During one argument over Israel's insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni receives a phone call from her son, recently drafted into the army. The minutes read: "She reiterates the importance of making peace for precisely that reason, although it may be too late for her son already."

In another meeting, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat tells the U.S. secretary of state that Israeli home demolitions make Palestinians doubt Israeli motives — even in his own family.

"My wife asks me what the hell we are doing here?!" Erekat says.

Talk on tough issues was often lightened with jokes during the negotiations.

Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia joked that he wants the sides to focus on West Bank infrastructure so the future Palestinian state will come "furnished." At another point, he tells Livni he'd vote for her if he were Israeli.

Present and past negotiators from both sides said the intensity of peace talks draws negotiators together despite their arguments.

"If you put Israelis and Palestinians at one table, in no time they find a common language," said Ron Pundak, an Israeli who helped arrange the back channel contacts that led to the first interim peace deals in the mid-1990s. "They are swimming in the same mud. They know they are dependent on each other."

Sometimes the jokes in the memos are darker, playing off the sides' deepest fears of each other.

Livni suggested the two sides plan a release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas in Gaza since 2006, around some event.

"You mean like kidnapping an Israeli?" Qureia asks.

"You know, when you are smiling you ask the most difficult questions," Livni responds.

The documents, mostly notes from meetings between Nov. 2007 and Dec. 2008, show both sides conceding key demands, though usually with a fight.

When Livni argued that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state," Palestinians said doing so could harm Israel's Arab citizens and the rights of Palestinian refugees displaced in the war surrounding Israel's creation.

One document notes Livni was "visibly angered" when a Palestinian suggested Israel is for "the Israeli people," not "the Jewish people."

"I think that we can use another session about what it means to be a Jew and that it is more than just a religion," she fires back.

The Palestinians seek a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in 1967 — but the documents show they'd accept minor land swaps so Israel could keep some of the largest settlements it has built there.

They also indicate that as part one proposed deal, the Palestinians would let Israel keep all but one east Jerusalem Jewish enclave and accept the return of only a symbolic number of refugees.

Both offers contradict long-held Palestinian public demands.

The Olmert book describes the Israel leader's last meeting with Abbas on Sept. 16, 2008, when he showed Abbas a map detailing his latest offer and pressured him to sign it his peace blueprint.

"Take the pen and sign now. You will never receive a fairer or more equitable proposal," Olmert said. Abbas asked for more time then canceled their next meeting, and the two men never met again, Olmert wrote.

Throughout the process, the documents also show both sides struggling to keep information from the media and scolding each other when leaks occur. A former Palestinian negotiator said that everyone involved knows there is a gap between what happens in negotiations and what the public will tolerate.

"If they see you shaking hands with the prime minister, they will criticize you," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely. "It's like (the public) thinks in negotiations you have to punch each other. No. You have to have a kind of relationship to feel comfortable."

The documents also cite moments when negotiators appear to sympathize with each other in ways rarely expressed publicly.

At one point, Qureia says Israel must feel its security needs are covered before it can adopt an agreement — a rare acknowledgment among Palestinians.

Before detailing an Israeli proposal on borders, Livni says the Palestinians could find it hard to allow so many Jewish settlements to remain in the West Bank. "I know that every inch hurts you," she said.

But while struggling, both sides come across in the documents as committed to the process and keenly aware of the difficulty of their task.

At one point, Erekat says: "Whoever will be able to reach an agreement to solve this conflict will be the most important figure in the region after Jesus Christ!"