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Contentious article could lead to yet another tragedy for the Palestinians

The Palestinians have learnt from experience to be wary of political initiatives "Made in London". They have witnessed how projects from the Balfour Declaration to the Oslo Accords were incubated in Britain's capital and have had devastating consequences. Hence their alarm was perfectly justified after the publication of an article titled "The Two State-solution: The Way Forward" in the Fathom web-based journal, which is linked to the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). It purported to set out the terms of a final peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis.

While many academic papers on the conflict often go unnoticed, anything written in the name of a Palestinian ambassador is bound to attract attention and be scrutinised. That is exactly what happened in the case of the article published by Fathom on 12 June and attributed to Palestine's Ambassador to the UK, Professor Manuel Hassassian and Professor Rafael Cohen-Almagor, an Israeli academic based at Hull University.

Many of the proposals cited in their article were a rehash of clauses either from the ill-fated Oslo Accords (1993) or the more controversial Geneva Accords (2003). However, there was something which was new and hugely disturbing to many Palestinians. Under the subtitle of "mutual recognition", the article states that "Palestine shall recognise the Jewish State of Israel." This, of course, was a major bone of contention throughout the recent negotiations; the PLO/Palestinian Authority delegation had time and again reaffirmed that they were not prepared to offer such recognition.

In February, during Al Jazeera's Head to Head programme, Mehdi Hasan asked the PLO's chief negotiator Dr Saeb Erekat whether he was prepared to recognise Israel as a Jewish state. "I will never recognise Israel as a Jewish state," he insisted. When asked why not, Erekat replied, "Because I have already recognised the state of Israel's right to exist in exchange for future recognition, in 1993." Was the veteran Erekat speaking in his personal capacity? No, he explained. "I'm saying that on behalf of 11 million Palestinians. I'm their Chief Negotiator." Significantly, Prof Hassassian was himself a member of the panel on that occasion. So what has changed that led to last week's article?

Nothing, apparently. Ambassador Hassassian has issued a clarification pointing out that the offending article was actually written by Cohen-Almagor, who published it and added Hassassian's name after he had commented on the draft.

A statement posted on the Palestine Embassy's website noted: "The PLO recognises the State of Israel and not the Jewish State. [Ambassador Hassassian] strongly opposes the recognition of a Jewish State because it denies the right of return and jeopardises the status of 1.5 million Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship."

Meanwhile, the pro-Israel publishers of the article have lavished the ambassador with praise, claiming that he is the first Palestinian ambassador to advocate publicly recognition of Israel's "Jewishness".

The controversy surrounding this article will surely continue to rumble on until there is absolute clarity from the Palestinian leadership. Until then, the nagging doubt will persist that this was in fact a testing of the water by elements within the PLO.

As it stands, not even the summoning of Ambassador Hassassian to Ramallah would be enough to quash suspicion. It should be recalled that the publication of the article coincided with a meeting between the PA's Foreign Minister, Riyad Al Maliki, and Israeli negotiator and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni in London last week.

Hassassian's clarification is, of course, welcome. Nevertheless, because of his official position as the representative of 11 million Palestinians, both he and his political bosses will have to do much more than simply decry the matter as a "terrible misunderstanding" about which the ambassador had been "tricked".

If he was not a co-author of the article as the embassy statement suggests, then at the very least he must demand the immediate removal of his name and a public apology from the author and publishers. If they fail to comply with this demand the ambassador and PLO should initiate legal proceedings.

The issue of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was just one of several highly contentious issues featured in the Fathom article. Its proposals on Jerusalem, refugees, water, security and education are all shrouded in misleading and ambiguous language. The history of this conflict is replete with papers written by academics. They have often appeared initially as "unofficial" studies only to end up as official documents and points of reference.

If the controversy surrounding this latest article is not dealt with openly and properly, it may also be adopted as a point of reference in future negotiations. This, no doubt, would be yet another tragedy among many for the people of Palestine.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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