x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Palestine papers inspire both shouts and shoulder-shrugs

As leaked documents of negotiations with Israel make the rounds, the Palestinians must finally find a way to restore the connection between the people and their leadership.

If I were a Palestinian I would be one of those commentators you see on the Arab satellite news channels, full of rage at the actions of the Palestinian negotiators as revealed by Al Jazeera this week. What other response could there be to the abject desperation of the Palestinian Authority?

The Palestinian negotiators offer the Israelis just about everything they could want, and yet still get rejected. They plead and try to be friendly, but get patronising treatment from the Israelis. For Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, these negotiations over the soul of the Palestinian issue are no more than a game of cat and mouse, where the fun comes from seeing how long it can be dragged out.

Yet with the analytical side of my brain, I can see why many people shrug and say, what's new here? These negotiators have been talking for 20 years, so it is not surprising that they have got down to serious detail. The outlines of a future peace deal have been known since 2000 and endlessly aired in the media. The balance of forces between Israel and the Palestinians does not change, except in Israel's favour.

And in fact, there is something new here. The compromises - over Jerusalem, settlements and the right of return of Palestinian refugees - were rejected as inadequate by Yasser Arafat at the Camp David talks in 2000. He knew he could not retain his reputation as Mr Palestine if he signed up to them.

What was rejected then has now (we know) been proposed by the Palestinian side. Of course, as Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, says, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But still what is proposed by the Palestinians will always be put in Israel's pocket, and used as the starting point for the next round.

Palestinian reaction to the leaks has been measured in the West Bank. It was what people expected.

It is easy to see how we came to this point. After the failure at Camp David, Mr Arafat was left with his peace strategy in tatters. He rode the tiger of armed struggle because he did not see any other way to show the Israelis that they could not continue with the status quo. This was a disastrous miscalculation. He ended up with his people corralled behind high walls and checkpoints, and himself a prisoner unto death in his ruined Ramallah headquarters.

After the fiasco of the second intifada, the Palestinian Authority had only one way forward: to press for a peace deal at all costs. The price exacted by Israel was ever closer coordination with the Palestinian security forces that at times comes close to looking like an alliance against Hamas. What the Palestinians got in return is hard to see.

No authority can look good when its confidential papers are released, just as no one would have any friends if their private conversations were broadcast to the world. But there is a justification for the leaks here.

The talks have continued in a separate universe from real life. There has been no connection between what is discussed and the Palestinian constituents in whose name the talks are conducted. Secrecy is vital, but at some stage, the leadership has to come clean about what is being discussed.

Instead, the usual slogans have been trotted out about not an inch of Jerusalem being given up, while in fact the negotiators have been proposing the most "creative" compromises. What is lacking is leadership from the Palestinians - and also the Israelis too.

The Palestinian negotiators missed a big opportunity to bridge the gap with the people. Instead of dismissing the leaks as "full of distortions and fraud", they should have said these were the extreme compromises that were offered, but the Israelis turned them down. They would have gained in stature, and the world would have understood that Israel indeed does have a peace partner.

As Diana Buttu, a former member of the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit, has pointed out, "They keep sticking to the line that they have given up nothing. That is true, but they have also done nothing."

Without a connection to the people, talks are no more than haki fadi, empty talk. In fact, that is exactly how the Israeli negotiators treat these talks, a mild diversion while the real business of settlement building continues.

Leadership is no stronger among the Israelis. It is a bizarre fact of Israeli life that Israeli prime ministers such as Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, when they leave office, issue rousing calls for the speedy creation of a Palestinian state, without which Israel will become a pariah in the vein of apartheid South Africa. While in power, they make war, not peace.

The current Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is somewhat different: he too likes to claim that his hands are tied by coalition politics. But he has never shown any desire for a Palestinian state, so scepticism is in order.

But there is some truth in what he says. The current Israeli political system is incapable of producing a government strong enough to make peace with the Palestinians. While politicians come and go, the permanent power centres of Israel - the army, the security and intelligence services, and the settlers' lobby - proceed with expanding the borders of the state.

As for the Palestinian leadership, the existential struggle between Fatah and Hamas reduces any leader to a factional fighter. For one man to combine the interests of the Palestinians under occupation with those of the five million-strong diaspora requires contortions that will result in only one thing: empty slogans.

While Israel enjoys the unconditional support of the US and the backing of American billionaires, the Palestinians are all but abandoned by the Arab world, so their slogans are emptier than ever.

The impossible is occasionally practicable. In France, General Charles de Gaulle extricated his country from the bloodbath of a colonial war in Algeria. To do that he faced down a military insurrection, confronted the prospect of civil war and narrowly escaped assassination. But he was a leader, not a follower.

For the moment, there is a lack of leadership on both sides. The lesson of these leaks is that both responses - anger and shoulder-shrugging - are justified. In the light of what is happening elsewhere in the Arab world, the Palestinians must more than ever find a way to restore the connection between the people and their leadership.