Palestinian leaders scramble to spin Al Jazeera leaks

In case you haven't heard, Al Jazeera (along with the Guardian) on Sunday announced it had gotten its hands on more than 1,600 Palestinian documents detailing negotiations with Israeli and U.S. officials. The documents aren't all released yet, but the story is already roiling the Arab world, prompting fresh cries that the Palestinian Authority is "selling out" to Israel by offering politically sensitive concessions on Jerusalem, its holy sites, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Perhaps more damning, in Arab eyes, is the language used by some Palestinian leaders. Longtime peace negotiator Saeb Erekat is quoted in one document, a write-up of a Jan. 15, 2010, meeting with U.S. envoy David Hale, saying he had offered Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state ... what more can I give?"

Erekat and other Palestinian leaders have made no effort to prepare their public for these kinds of concessions. In 2009, for instance, Erekat appeared on Al Jazeera and said, "There will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem -- with every single stone in it -- becomes the capital of Palestine." 

No wonder Palestinian leaders are scrambling to contain the damage, ripping Al Jazeera and even the emir of Qatar, which sponsors the satellite channel. Erekat told reporters that the documents have been "taken out of context and contain lies… Al Jazeera's information is full of distortions and fraud." For its part, the network says it has "taken great care over an extended period of time to assure ourselves of their authenticity," as has the Guardian. The State Department says it's looking into them.

So, who leaked the papers? Most likely people within the Negotiations Support Unit, the Palestinian organization that staffs Erekat and took most of the notes, the Guardian reports:

[A]s the negotiations have increasingly been seen to have failed, and the Ramallah-based PA leadership has come to be regarded by many Palestinians as illegitimate or unrepresentative, discontent among NSU staff has grown and significant numbers have left. There has also been widespread discontent in the organisation at the scale and nature of concessions made in the talks.

If this speculation is right, the leakers intended to embarrass their former bosses. Mission accomplished.

So what now? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been ruling outside the law for some time now; there doesn't seem to be a legal means for his opponents to oust him. That means Palestinians who oppose the PA are going to need to take to the streets to voice their disapproval, Tunisia style.

And what of the two-state solution? It was probably already dead, and these documents will only reinforce the point. But I imagine the "peace process" will limp along, one way or another, until it becomes impossible to defend anymore. I hope the Obama team has an exit strategy.


Seymour Hersh, the Knights of Malta, and me

Since my write-up of Seymour Hersh's talk is getting some coverage today, and many commenters have written in to dispute my post, I thought I should provide a little more context.

More than a few readers, including Salon's Glenn Greenwald, complained that I hadn't rebutted Hersh's arguments. That wasn't my intention -- I was relaying what Hersh said. I did make two editorial comments: that his speech was a "rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe" and that it "quickly went downhill" after its opening line. But I imagine that when most reasonable people read the transcript -- I don't have a video, unfortunately -- they will see what I'm talking about. As far as I know, nobody, including Hersh, is disputing my quotes.

I thought it was self-evident that several points Hersh made were off-base and conspiratorial, but perhaps it's worth spelling things out for everyone.

1. The idea that "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals" is "an attitude that pervades … a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command." This is essentially unverifiable unless you do a survey of JSOC personnel. Good luck with that. For now, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC is on the whole a highly competent and professional organization that has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity around the world. If it were otherwise, I'm sure we'd be hearing about it from others besides Seymour Hersh.

2. Retired General Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… Many of them are members of Opus Dei." McChrystal has already denied being a member of Knights of Malta; McRaven and JSOC have thus far declined to comment. But so what if they were? Everything I've seen tells me that the Knights of Malta are a public service organization, not some kind of Catholic extremist group. And Opus Dei is hardly the secretive cabal of ruthless assassins depicted in The Da Vinci Code. It has a Facebook page.

3. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They see themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function." I have no doubt that many in the U.S. military are religious, and yes, I've heard about Jerry Boykin, Erik Prince, and those rifle scopes. But the plural of anecdote is not data -- and acknowledging there are devout Christians in the military and implying that top military leaders are embarking on a "crusade" against Muslims are two very different things. "Zealotry is viewed as being unprofessional [in the SF community]," former Special Forces officer Kalev Sepp told Stars and Stripes. "Anyone who professes religion in an open way like that is suspect to where their real loyalties lie." (Do I really need to explain this?)

4. "They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins.… They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war." I believe Hersh is referring here to challenge coins, a common sight across the U.S. military. They seem pretty innocuous to me.

There's a lot more, but you get the idea. So I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it: Odds are good that JSOC is not being overrun by Catholic fanatics.