Bargaining over political shibboleth of Palestinian right of return
The latest release of the "Palestine Papers", as the Guardian is referring to the files it is publishing in co-operation with al Jazeera, concerns the refugee issue.
For many Palestinians, the right of return of those displaced by the 1948 and 1967 wars is one of the central issues of their national struggle.
Yet the papers, which are thought to have originated with the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit, show that in meetings, senior Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) officials considered options that would have allowed only a tiny minority of those spread across the Middle East to return to homes within Israel's internationally recognised borders - the so-called Green Line.
At one point, according to the documents, the Israelis proposed allowing just five thousand back. At another, the Palestinian chief negotiator appears to concede that no more than ten thousand could return.
There are more than four million Palestinians living outside Israel and the Occupied Territories who are refugees or might claim descent from them.
Those of us who have followed the negotiating process over the years have got to understand that no more than a small proportion of this diaspora could ever re-settle in Israel under a peace agreement.
I have spoken to quite a few Palestinians in Jordan or Lebanon who say they would not want to live in Israel anyway.
In the past, negotiators have hoped to deal with this issue by various formulas: financial compensation from Israel to those who could not go back; a "right of return" to the Palestinian state (rather than within the Green Line); re-settlement of those refugees who wanted it to third countries; the transfer of land within the Green Line to a future Palestinian state (and settling of some refuges on that land), and so on.
The problem for the PLO leadership is that the "right of return" has remained a political shibboleth for their movement for decades. No Palestinian leader wants to be seen selling out the refugees.
Those exposed by these leaks would of course argue that they were not selling out the refugees and that the kind of deal they were working on would have involved a package of options like those above.
The problem they face now is that many outside the Ramallah elite have never understood that the PLO was willing to negotiate on this principle, and that even those who did understand the idea of "give and take" might not have imagined that they would get such a bad deal.
In the briefings and conversations I had over the years (since the issue was first seriously discussed between Israel and the Palestinians at the Taba Talks of 10 years ago) we had heard figures of 30-100,000 refugees being allowed to go back, or of re-settlement in Canada or Australia.
We were also told that any eventual deal would be subject of a referendum in which Palestinians, including those in the camps, would have their say.
The leaked papers suggest that the number returning might be as low as 10,000, the third countries would include Chile and Argentina, and that the Palestinian chief negotiator told one European foreign minister that people in the camps would not get a vote after all.
Many questions arise from this, not least why did not Israel's centrist Kadima government that was offered these terms sign up as quickly as possible, if it was as interested in peace as it claimed to be.
Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland quips, "they didn't know how to take 'yes' for an answer".
In truth though, the Israelis are unlikely to feel the greatest heat as a result of these leaks.
The anger of many Palestinians, who have grown to expect nothing good from the Israelis, is being directed towards their own leadership for getting into such compromising terms in the first place.
Was it the leaker's intention to sweep away the PLO old guard? We simply don't know, but all they may have succeeded in doing is discrediting Palestinians who were ready to talk peace - and in surprisingly generous terms - at a time when there is no alternative leadership that believes in this type of compromise.