After two days of “positive” discussions — one of the oldest clichés in politics — the talks broke up. Then, virtual radio silence.
There has been practically no coverage of the negotiations or their aftermath. Apart from some vaguely optimistic messages, no official pronouncements have been made.
The small amount of information that has come out about the talks has been based almost exclusively on anonymous sources.
The collective response among Palestinians or in the media seems to have been a thundering “so what?”
The near total lack of interest in the negotiations, even in the Palestinian press, should be surprising. After all, the division between Fatah and Hamas is often cited as a fundamental obstacle for Palestinians in their struggle to secure an end to occupation, a return of refugees and all the other issues on which everyone concerned appears to agree.
But, tellingly, the apathy isn’t surprising. It is a measure of how far down the regional order of priorities Palestine has dropped.
It is also evidence of the extent to which public faith in Palestinian leaders of both stripes, not to mention regional mediation, has waned.
This, after all, is not the first time that Fatah and Hamas have sat round a table to patch up an always problematic relationship that completely fractured when Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006. That victory eventually saw an attempted putsch that in turn resulted in Fatah being ousted as a meaningful player from the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Hamas members then found themselves hounded by Palestinian Authority forces in the West Bank.
Palestinians saw their efforts at the ballot box turn sour. The 2006 legislative vote — only the second such vote since the advent of the Palestinian Authority and the first in which Hamas participated — was widely hailed as free and fair.
And with a turnout of some 75 percent, Palestinians proved enthusiastic participants even though the vote was taking place under military occupation and therefore something of a charade.
But after the Gaza fighting, what emerged instead of an inclusive and elected legislative body under a Fatah president — Mahmoud Abbas had won presidential elections in 2005 after the death of Yasser Arafat — were two ruling bodies, with deeply circumscribed powers, in two separate geographical areas, both under Israeli occupation. It was a case of “two bald men fighting for a comb,” as Diana Buttu, a former Palestine Liberation Organization spokesperson said.
Almost every year since then has seen some attempt at reconciliation. Four agreements have even been struck: in Mecca (2007), Cairo (2011), Doha (2012) and Gaza and Cairo (2014). There were also the Sanaa declaration in 2008 and the Cairo accord in 2012.
None of these stuck and each attempt has been met with less and less interest. The last, in 2014, did result in a unity government but that fell apart amid mutual recriminations after just more than a year.
Little wonder then that Palestinians have adopted a “prove you are serious” attitude to this round of negotiations. In a poll conducted in September last, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that national unity had slipped to fifth on a list of national priorities. Only around 5 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza said it was the most pressing issue facing Palestinian society.
Even Qatar, usually so vocal about its self-appointed role as mediator of all things Muslim Brotherhood, has played the almost bashful facilitator this time around.
What has emerged about the Doha talks – from “informed” but anonymous sources, of course – is not insignificant, if accurate. What is being described as a “pragmatic” understanding has apparently seen some longstanding positions soften.
Hamas, it is reported, will allow Abbas to form any kind of unity government he wants and has also compromised over control at the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas has apparently agreed not to have any involvement in managing the crossing.
Giving such a commitment is a prerequisite for any Egyptian agreement to open the border.
Fatah, meanwhile, has conceded that civil servants appointed by Hamas to the Gaza administration will still be able to work for and receive salaries from the PA. Those appointments were made after Fatah ordered civil servants loyal to it in Gaza to stay at home in order to be paid.
This issue is hugely important to Hamas, which has a responsibility to those who were willing to help it administer the Strip after 2007, but also to Gaza generally, where any paid job is potentially life-saving in an otherwise barren economy.
The single most important possible consequence, if talks result in action, would be the opening of the Rafah crossing. That could alleviate suffering in the besieged Gaza Strip. But it would still depend on the mood among the Israeli and Egyptian political elites.
Beyond that, it is not at all clear what will change on the ground.
And that is perhaps the most important factor explaining Palestinian apathy toward these latest talks: there is no wider horizon.
Almost 80 percent of respondents to the September PCPSR poll believe there is a low or non-existent chance of a Palestinian state in the next five years. More significantly, more than 65 percent believe the two-state solution is no longer viable.
That is why Palestinian youth are increasingly taking matters into their own hands, outside any political affiliation. It is why more and more now believe — more than 50 percent according to the recent poll — that the PA should be dissolved.
With or without Palestinian reconciliation, Israel will not cease expanding settlements or ending its occupation — let alone fulfill other obligations under international law such as allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise their right of return. Neither Fatah’s endless negotiations and security cooperation with Israel nor the Hamas approach to resistance has shown any promise in this regard.
Ending the rift between Fatah and Hamas is, of course, important. But unity is a misnomer.
There is no agreement on strategy toward confronting the occupation, the single most important issue that Palestinians face.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.