Over the years, Ahmed Qurei sat at the table beside Yasser Arafat and Abu Mazen, as Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is widely known. Qurei, who goes by the name Abu Ala, was less known, a stalwart negotiator who helped bring about the Oslo accords and had a ringside seat at Camp David, but away from the spotlight. Tuesday morning found him at his desk in the Abu Dis suburb of Jerusalem, eyes flicking at regular intervals toward a flat-screen television tuned to al-Jazeera, which had thrust him onstage. For two days straight, the satellite news channel had pounded the Palestinian Authority, publishing minutes of closed-door sessions with the Israelis that place Abu Ala at the center of negotiations driven by offer after plaintive offer from the Palestinian side, and nothing to show for it.
Qurei waves a Marlboro Light in a gesture that takes in the room. "I don't think you need anything," he tells a visitor. "It's all in the papers!"
Not every paper. On Monday, al-Quds, the leading paper in Palestine, published nothing of the al-Jazeera leaks. Tuesday's edition highlighted the PA's pushback, framing the scoop as an effort to sabotage Palestinian moderates. Outside, in the waiting room, an aide stands by a photocopier, running off a Foreign Policy article headlined "Building a Police State in Palestine."
"Two minutes ago, Tzipi Livni phoned me," says Qurei, naming the Israeli Foreign Minister in 2008, who sat opposite him in many of the transcribed meetings. What did she say? "She said, 'What's this?'"
Good question. There is little in what al-Jazeera calls the Palestine Papers that was not known to anyone who reads coverage of the Middle East peace process. Major elements of a presumed pact Israel keeping the Jewish neighborhoods it has built around Jerusalem, Palestinians settling for cash payments as a "symbolic" right of refugees to return to homes their families were driven from in 1948 have been kicking around since at least Camp David, or July 2000. What's new is the verbatim of negotiators actually laying them out, in terms that bring the issues vividly home to a Palestinian public that the leadership has not quite kept in the loop.
Among the many up-close and too-provocative citations from the leaks: chief negotiator Saeb Erekat telling U.S. envoy George Mitchell in October 2009, "The Palestinians need to know that 5 million refugees will not return," and Qurei telling Livni, then running for Prime Minister, "I would vote for you."
"It's a table. You talk," Qurei explains to TIME. "You know negotiations? You talk!"
He first heard rumors of the leaks two months ago but wonders aloud at the timing just as Palestinians are gaining recognition for statehood from a growing number of foreign governments. It's also pushing for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's expansion of settlements on land that would be a future state. "Without the PLO strong, without the Palestinian leadership strong, without Abu Mazen strong no solution," Qurei says.
The leaks could, however, prove more harmful to Israel, where leaders frequently say no peace deal has occurred because "we have no partner." In the papers, the Palestinians certainly come across as making a real effort. "This is not the idea," he says, making a face. "Not to hurt Israel. Not to hurt the Palestinians. We want peace."
The reaction of the Palestinian public is, like the revelations, still unfolding. Al-Jazeera promises two more days of inside information, including possibly devastating details of foreknowledge of Israel's 2008 attack on Gaza. But at this point, ordinary Palestinians say they welcome a bit of transparency.
"Let's suppose the Palestinians have offered all these things to the Israelis. Why haven't they shared them with the people?" asks a man who gives his name as Abu Tawfeq, on the main street a few blocks from Qurei's office. "Hopefully this will put pressure on members of the Authority to share with the people. It shouldn't be a big secret."
A few doors down, Fawaz al-Zeger stands outside a clothing store holding the same thought in mind. "It's appropriate, what al-Jazeera is doing, because what they're saying is true: the Palestinian negotiating team feels that Palestine is their property," he says. "What al-Jazeera is doing may stop them from doing as they please. The role of the negotiators is not to offer anything before they get the permission of the people, and that's why we don't have peace." Al-Zeger adds, "I'm sorry, but they should be reminded. I'm just saying what I feel and what most people feel."
Not everyone will say it, though. The West Bank has certainly been a safer place in recent years, but human-rights activists complain that security forces that wage a ceaseless war on followers of Hamas the Islamist militant group that controls the perhaps 40% of Palestinians who live on the Gaza Strip also inhibit dissent. "I'm a young man. I don't want to be put in prison," says Ayman, declining to comment from his perch on a cement wall. A few steps further along, outside a burger joint, a young man named Ziad says he also declines "to get involved." But he allows, with a smile, "I believe what I hear."