This week’s leaks have exposed the dangerous folly of US and British attempts to control and divide the Palestinians
It’s a tragedy for the Palestinian people that at a time when their cause is the focus of greater global popular support than ever in their history, their own political movements to win their rights are in such debilitating disarray. That has been one of the clearest messages from the cache of leaked documents al-Jazeera and the Guardian have published over the past few days. It’s not just the scale of one-sided concessions – from refugees to illegal settlements – offered by Palestinian negotiators and banked for free by their Israeli counterparts. The constant refrain of ingratiating desperation is in some ways more shocking. While Israel’s Tzipi Livni rejects the offer to hand over vast chunks of Jerusalem as insufficient – adding “but I really appreciate it” – and Condi Rice muses over resettling Palestinian refugees in South America, the chief PLO negotiator, Saeb Erekat, is reduced to begging for a “figleaf”.
It’s a study in the decay of what in Yasser Arafat’s heyday was an authentic national liberation movement. Try to imagine the Vietnamese negotiators speaking in such a way at the Paris peace talks in the 70s – or the Algerian FLN in the 60s – and it’s obvious how far the West Bank Palestinian leadership has drifted from its national moorings.
However well the basic contours were known, it’s scarcely surprising many Palestinians are still stunned to discover exactly what is being said and done in their name. Erekat writes in the Guardian that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, and any deal would be put to a referendum. But as we know from the Palestine papers, he himself made clear in private that such a vote would exclude most Palestinians, particularly refugees. And as he told US officials last year, the same package offered three years ago is “still there”, waiting to be picked up.
But simply to point the finger at Palestinian leaders is to miss the point. What has been highlighted by the documents is not a picture of genuine negotiation and necessary compromise, but of a gross imbalance of power that can’t deliver peace, let alone justice. What’s more, it’s one where the western powers repeatedly intervene to tilt the scales still further against the victims of the conflict.
What has become clearer from the confidential records is that the talk of “partners for peace” is a fantasy. A far more mainstream Israeli leadership than is now in power was not even close to accepting an offer that would anyway have been almost certainly rejected by Palestinians if they had been consulted.
And why would Israeli negotiators do anything else when their rejection was backed to the hilt by the US government? Reading the transcripts of the talks, they often seem to be simply going through the motions.
It is the story of 20 years of failed peace negotiations that became a charade, a way to maintain the status quo rather than deliver the promised two-state solution, and that have now evidently run into the sand. Inevitably, the vacuum they have left behind can only increase the threat of renewed war.
This is the same peace process that produced the breakdown of authentic leadership and the dysfunctional structures of the Palestinian Authority, which underlie the sorry saga disclosed in the leaked documents.
The PA was designed in the 1993 Oslo agreement to be a temporary administration for a five-year transition to statehood. Eighteen years later it has become an open-ended authoritarian quasi state, operating as an outsourced security arm of the Israeli occupation it was meant to replace, funded and effectively controlled by the US, Britain and other western governments.
Its leader’s electoral mandate ran out two years ago, and the authority has become increasingly repressive, imprisoning and torturing both civilian and military activists from its rival, Hamas, which won the last Palestinian elections.
With the large bulk of its income coming from the US and the European Union, the PA’s leaders are now far more accountable to their funders than to their own people. And, as the records of private dealings between US and PA officials show, it is the American government and its allies that now effectively pick the Palestinians’ leaders.
The new administration expected to see “the same Palestinian faces” in charge if the cash was to keep flowing, PA officials were told after Obama’s election: Mahmoud Abbas and, more importantly, the Americans’ point man, Salam Fayyad.
And despite some less strident rhetoric, the US and British governments have continued to promote the division between Fatah and Hamas, in effect blocking reconciliation while pouring resources and training into the PA security machine’s campaign against the Palestinian Islamist movement.
As we also now know, British intelligence and government officials have been at the heart of the western effort to turn the PA into an Iraqi-style counter-insurgency operation against Hamas and other groups that continue to maintain the option of armed resistance to occupation. Shielded from political accountability at home, how exactly does British covert support for detention without trial of Palestinians by other Palestinians promote the cause of peace and security in the Middle East, or anywhere else? In reality, it simply makes the chances of a representative Palestinian leadership that could actually deliver peace with justice even less likely.
The message from the revolutionary events in Tunisia and the spread of unrest elsewhere in the Arab world should be clear enough. Western support for dictatorial pro-western regimes across the region for fear of who their people might elect if given the chance isn’t just wrong – it’s no longer working, and risks provoking the very backlash it’s aimed to forestall.
That applies even more strongly to the Palestinian territories, under military occupation for the past 44 years. Unless those governments that bolster Israeli rejectionism and PA clientalism shift ground, the result will be to fuel and spread the conflict.
For Palestinians, the priority has to be to start to change that lopsided balance of power. That will require a more representative and united national leadership, as the story told by the Palestine papers has rammed home – which means at the very least a democratic overhaul of Palestinian institutions, such as the PLO. In the wake of what has now emerged, pressure for change is bound to grow. Anyone who cares for the Palestinian cause must hope it succeeds.
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