Only serious dissent on the Palestinian street will change the game: Former PLO negotiator Diana Buttu on the ‘Palestine Papers’ and the Egyptian uprising

Israel/Palestine
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The publication of nearly 1,700 leaked files by Al Jazeera on negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority has been largely overshadowed by the uprising in Egypt. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter for the future of Israel/Palestine.

I recently caught up with Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit, a team that is mentioned throughout the “Palestine Papers” and where it is suspected the leak came from. Buttu discussed the meaning of the “Palestine Papers,” what they say about the “peace process,” and the current Egyptian uprising and what it may mean on the Palestinian street.

Alex Kane: Could you talk about your overall take on the leaked documents that have been published by Al Jazeera?

Diana Buttu: Having now gone through a lot of the documents—of course, not all of the documents, but many of them—the overall impression that I’m left with is that of a very powerful party, which is Israel, trying to continue their control and authority over a very weak party being the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But the story doesn’t just stop there.

I think that it’s become, at least clear to me and perhaps to others, that this mantra we’ve been hearing for many, many years—that we all know what a solution is going to look like, we all know what a settlement is going to look like—is actually not the case, particularly when you read the transcripts of the Israeli officials. That’s one major thing that I come away with.

The second major conclusion that I walk away with is that of a PLO leadership stubbornly sticking to one strategy, and only one strategy: negotiations, and only negotiations, despite the fact that there are so many other options out there. It’s as though they’ve cornered themselves by demanding negotiations, and then when they actually happen, they didn’t have any other strategy to get out of negotiations in the event that Israel was going to be stubborn.

AK: What would you say these revelations mean for the entire “peace process”?

DB: I don’t think there really is a “peace process.” There’s been a lot of process, but not a whole lot of peace, and I just don’t think that things are going to change. It hasn’t changed over the course of the past 17 years. I don’t think this is going to make the United States wake up, and it’s certainly not going to make the Israelis wake up, and in fact I don’t think the PLO will wake up, unless there’s some very serious dissent, and I just don’t see that happening right now, even though diaspora Palestinians are quite upset about what’s going on. But we haven’t seen that translate into anything on the streets of Palestine. I don’t think this is going to change anything in the “peace process.” They’re going to continue doing this over and over again because this is the way they’ve done it for the past 17 years, and unless there is a sea change of opinion that makes the PLO stand up and take notice or makes any of the other parties stand up and take notice, I’m afraid that it’s just going to be the same old, same old.

AK: Given that there’s been a muted reaction on the Palestinian street at the same time that there’s an uprising going on in Egypt, do you see any possible connection between these events in the future?

DB: Right now I don’t see that there’s going to be a connection. It’s important to step back: part of the reason why we’re seeing a muted reaction in Palestine is because of the way the documents were presented. Whether you believe the documents or you don’t believe the documents—and I have no reason to question the documents, particularly after members of the PLO have come out and verified the authenticity of the documents—the main problem is that they were presented in somewhat of a sensationalist way.

One example that I can give is that Al Jazeera tied the assassination of al-Madhoun, who is a member of Fatah, of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and they tried to claim that because the Israelis made a request for this man to be assassinated, that somehow the PA acquiesced or condoned his killing. That’s a bit of a stretch. There is a lot of security cooperation that takes place between the PA and Israel—and it’s outrageous, it includes torture and mass arrest—but there was really no proof to bring it to the level that the PA was actually collaborating with Israel over this man’s killing.

And so, in the way that the documents were presented, the debate in Palestine now has not turned into a debate over the main issues, which are accountability, transparency, red lines, whether we should believe in this negotiations process, and whether the PLO has adopted alternative strategies. None of that is going to take place because instead the debate is currently over whether Al Jazeera crossed the line. And until we see something different, where it’s not a question of shooting the messenger, but we have the message that’s presented in a coherent way without the sensationalism, then I don’t think we’re going to have any real debate any time soon, unfortunately.

AK: Would you say that there’s been a marked shift in the negotiating posture of Palestinians since you last were part of a team involved in negotiations, is that shift represented in the “Palestine Papers,” and lastly, if so, what does that shift represent?

DB: Yes, there’s definitely a shift, and the reason why there was a shift is twofold. One is that the second intifada took place, and the PLO was suddenly stuck. Rather than capitalizing on the intifada, and the people power that it brought them, they ended up somehow being apologetic for the intifada and therefore backtracked on some positions. What were the positions they backtracked from? At the time that I was there, there was still a claim for the right of return.

It’s interesting, if you look at the documents from roughly 2000-2004, the positions that are taken are actually quite principled in some instances. For example, there is a demand for the right of return. There is the notion that all of the settlements are illegal. There is then a little bit of a backtrack by saying “land swaps,” but on a one-to-one basis. And so you see this kind of principled position, but then there’s a backtracking, and one of the reasons was the intifada and the complete failure on the part of the PA to use the intifada to their advantage, to actually harness popular support and alter their negotiating position.

The second reason, and I think this is the much more dangerous reason, is that during the period that I was there and a little bit after, you saw initiative after initiative come forward, and all of these initiatives, while never accepted by the PLO directly, were tacitly accepted by the PLO. For example, the Geneva Initiative was something that was never adopted by the PLO, and yet, you see a couple of things that are interesting. The first is those commercials you saw with Erekat and others in which they come forward and say “I need a partner”—those were all sponsored by the Geneva Initiative. And if you see, for example, the statements that American officials have come forward and said, they’ve all been saying the same thing, which is that “this reflects what happened during the negotiations.” But it didn’t. It reflects what happened after the negotiations fell apart. It was their own initiatives that they were putting forward—the Nusseibeh-Ayalon initiative, the Geneva Initiative—and this is where it becomes dangerous, because the Americans and others seem to assume that silence equals acquiescence. And unfortunately, the PLO falls into the trap of de facto acquiescing to these initiatives, when they align themselves with these things, such as they did with the various commercials, and when they don’t come out and completely reject them. I think this is why we’re now seeing a shift. While there were principled positions, if you believe in a two-state solution, the PLO has consistently undermined its own position because they didn’t really know how to deal with the intifada and because they never really objected to these major initiatives that were put on the table.

AK: And lastly: I know that you don’t think the papers will have a huge impact on the ground, but with the combination of what the “Palestine Papers” revealed and the unrest and uprising in Egypt, do you think that any of this popular anger in Egypt might be translated onto the street in Palestine and directed at either the PA or Israel?

DB: Optimism is one thing, but if I’m to speculate, I think the answer is going to be no. And I think it’s important to keep in mind that what’s going on in Egypt is a little bit different than what’s happening in Palestine, and there’s a lot of issues mitigating against another uprising.

The first is that the government of Salam Fayyad has tried to do a good job, using donor funds, to create a middle-class, and to give credit, and all of these sorts of things, and they’ve largely managed to silence a lot of dissent.

The second major factor is that there is a very repressive police regime that is now in place. It hasn’t been in place for as long as the Mubarak regime was in place, but nonetheless this is something new for Palestinians.

A third factor is that people aren’t really examining the merits of the papers, but rather in the way they were presented.

And the fourth thing is that the Palestinian street is already very divided, and if there’s one message that people are calling for, it’s that of national unity. And I think that people fear that going against the authority will somehow serve to undermine any attempts at national unity, even though there really are none right now. There also may be a fear factor of not wanting Hamas to take over.

It’s not ripe in the same way that Egypt was ripe. Again, not to say that it won’t happen. I just don’t think it’s going to happen in the short term.

Alex Kane blogs on Israel/Palestine and Islamophobia at alexbkane.wordpress.com.  Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

26 Responses

  1. Jim Haygood
    February 4, 2011, 4:57 pm

    A rather depressing interview. The early January communiqué from GYBO (Gaza Youth Breaks Out) seemed much more in tune with the Egyptian revolution, in terms of fresh thinking and questioning the legitimacy of existing leadership.

    Quite possibly, thanks to a changing Egypt across its border, Gaza’s prospects may now be brighter than those of the West Bank. That would completely invert the harsh lesson which Israel and the US sought to inculcate: that PA-style collaboration is the only way forward, while Gaza-style defiance will only bring siege, decay and isolation.

    If Gaza can break out of its economic cordon, then rigged paternalistic negotiations will lose their allure in a hurry. In any event, the PA’s ‘very repressive police regime’ which Buttu describes can hardly expect to emerge unscathed from a pan-Arab uprising against thuggish repression.

    Diana Buttu’s pessimism is perhaps more reflective of the decadence of the PLO, rather than hopelessness on the part of Palestinians at large. Egypt’s lesson is that Palestinians need a new generation of leaders; a new popular government.

    • Potsherd2
      February 4, 2011, 7:16 pm

      Depressing, pessimistic and realistic.

      The differences between Egypt and Palestine are profound. Aside from the occupation, Mubarak’s repressive police were completely under his personal control. But Abbas doesn’t have any real control over the Daytonistas. They’ll follow his orders as long as their real orders allow, but he doesn’t pay them. If the PA tries once to step out of line, it’ll be the “police” who take them down.

      • Hostage
        February 5, 2011, 11:46 am

        Years ago Diana publicly stated that, given the facts on the ground, the Palestinian leadership should drop the two-state solution and pursue equal rights and a South African-style anti-apartheid campaign.

        The Members of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Support Unit (Stephanie Koury, Jarat Chopra, Rami Shehadeh, and Michael Tarazi) did exactly that. They were part of the legal team that presented oral and written arguments in the ICJ Wall case. See the Docket listing link to icj-cij.org

        Chapter 10 of their 848 page 68mb written pleading outlined the fact that Israel’s policies and practices in the Occupied Palestinian territory satisfied all of the elements of the Crime of Apartheid and the definition the Court itself had used in the Namibia case.
        link to icj-cij.org

        That claim was backed-up by fact finding reports from UN officials on mission to the territory, published reports about Prime Minister Sharon’s policy of Bantustanization, and written statements from several interested State parties which said that the situation in the Occupied territories correspond to a number of the constituent acts of the crime of apartheid, as enumerated in Article 2 of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. See for example the Written Statement of Lebanon link to icj-cij.org

        The Court cited the fact finding reports and found that, with the exception of Israeli citizens, Israel was systematically violating the basic human rights of the inhabitants of the Occupied Territories. The Court cited illegal interference by the government of Israel with the Palestinian’s national right to self-determination, land confiscations, house demolitions, the creation of enclaves, and restrictions on movement and access to supplies of water, food, education, health care, work, and an adequate standard of living. The Court also noted that Palestinians had been displaced in violation of Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention. That textbook description of Apartheid is contained in paragraphs 132-134 of the advisory opinion: link to icj-cij.org

        Despite the fact that the Court found that both the Construction of the Wall and the associated military administrative regime were illegal, nothing has been done to bring Israel into compliance with the law or its international obligations.

        So, if I were Diana, I’d remain pessimistic too.

  2. Walid
    February 4, 2011, 5:47 pm

    Diana Butto was just about the only one that spoke English coherently on the Palestinian side. Since then we’ve had a couple of decades of the bumbling stuttering Erekat that negotiated zip during all these years and it was bad enough the Israelis had his number, now the Palestinian Papers have made him and Abbas him into collaborators. Her message may be pessimistic but she always gave the right time when discussing Palestinian issues and she was not wrong in having asked for Erekat’s resignation after the shocking release of how he and Abbas conducted themselves in giving the store away in their dealings with Israel. Maybe she was “too good” and the reason why she is not on the negotiating team and contrary to the current clowns running the show, she wanted the Palestinians to win.

  3. Shmuel
    February 4, 2011, 5:52 pm

    Thanks, Alex. A very interesting interview.

  4. syvanen
    February 4, 2011, 6:40 pm

    Yes Alex great interview. Not much interest in this story today but in a few weeks it will be front and center.

    I have one serious disagreement with Buttu’s assertion that Al Jazeera over-sensationalized the PA involvment in al Madhoun’s assassination. I strongly believe that the PA was a co-conspirator and should be denounced by the Palestinian people.

    Consider this analogy. Say Mr A comes to me and asks me to assassinate a local official. I do not want to do it so I procrastinate, listen to his offer and come up with all sorts of excuses for why the timing is not right. So Mr A goes out and assassinates the official. I knew of the plans, did not warn the victim nor publicize the plot. There is not a prosecutor in the US that would not indict me as a co-conspirator.

    It is good to hear Butto’s views but I think she may be too close to the PA to see how big the changes have been over the past two weeks. Though again I have never lived inside a terrorist police state. The US and Israel have set up and trained the PA police, the US and EU pay them 100 s or millions of dollars per year so perhaps the Palestinian people can be terrorized into accepting the Bantustan plan being pushed by the US and Israel. But then again, if Israeli violence failed to subdue the Palestinians over the last 40 years then why would turncoat violence succeed.

    • seafoid
      February 5, 2011, 9:43 am

      “I think she may be too close to the PA to see how big the changes have been over the past two weeks. ”

      I feel the same reading Amira Hass now. The Israeli occupation machine up close looks impregnable and has done for 44 years. But if Egypt goes the whole geopolitical balance breaks and suddenly Israel looks very, very isolated. It is fascinating to watch last year’s AIPAC speeches and think how much of the thinking was based on a power structure that won’t exist a few weeks from now.

      link to aipac.org

      Last year AIPAC was all about Iran and sanctions. Now Israel has nobody to talk to on the Arab side about Iran. That is a massive, massive change.

      Every single Arab knows about Gaza and what Israel has done to the innocent people there. Imagine 1.5 million European Jews herded together and thrown into a small strip of land 35km by 5m on the coast near Marseille. Imagine 80% of those Jews being reduced to begging international aid agencies for food. That is what Israel has done to Gaza.

      • Potsherd2
        February 5, 2011, 10:21 am

        Bombing Iran is off the table now that Israel is insecure about its southern border. Whatever the outcome of these events in Egypt, I think this will be the most significant outcome in Israel. Who knows, they may even learn to value peace.

  5. annie
    February 4, 2011, 7:01 pm

    thanks alex. very interesting. this is disappointing

    I don’t think this is going to make the United States wake up, and it’s certainly not going to make the Israelis wake up, and in fact I don’t think the PLO will wake up, unless there’s some very serious dissent, and I just don’t see that happening right now, even though diaspora Palestinians are quite upset about what’s going on. But we haven’t seen that translate into anything on the streets of Palestine.

    wondering if it’s dangerous in light of the very repressive police regime for palestinian discontent to translate onto the streets.

  6. Danaa
    February 4, 2011, 7:59 pm

    Good interview, Alex. Thanks – we needed this kind of realistic perspective, I think. Too many of us sometimes tend to take refuge in flights of hope, finding and lending comfort, wrapped in the resilient spirit of a conquered people. People who somehow still find the strength to protest, now and then, while cowering under an iron boot. But sometimes, in the midst of celebratory protest – on or off line – we, on the outside, whoever we are, tend to forget that the Palestinians must indeed carry on living – and working – in the ever-present shadow of their conquerors. Diana Bhutto said they are a very weak party and we all know that, but sometimes fail to internalize what that means, since most of us posting and/or blogging here do not live the occupation day in and day out.

    I, for one, tend to temper any criticism I might have of Fatah and the PA negotiating teams with a realization that these are captured people trying to negotiate with their kidnappers and jailers. If any of us were in their position we’d likely not be much better at keeping true to ideals, while living under constant threats and pressures. Yes, the PA is indeed a Vichy government, but someone has to do that too. No Vichy-type “government” can escape the charge – and reality – of corruption – literally, figuratively, and more significantly – spiritually.

    I think that Bhutto understands what the peace processing game is all about. From her answers I gather that she knows it’s about buying time – and surviving in the meantime – as a people – unified or not. I keep thinking of parallels with the American Indians – they too had to sign treaties that effectively abolished the claims of their people, only to see them broken again and again. In the end it was about survival since resistance was not an option. Time unfortunately was not on their side. Compared to that, the palestinians are indeed in a better position, because in the end it will not be possible to herd them into reservations, as much as israelis would like to do just that. There is, luckily for them, not enough space in the WB to do that and Jordan isn’t eager to take them in. In the end, they will likely become an organic part of whatever the state of Israel will end up being. But in the meantime, they have to continue to keep up the charade of negotiating “peace” in the hope that israel is just stone-hearted and foolish enough to never go through to an actual agreement.

    I am not really sure whether what I’m saying makes sense. But then we are witnessing a possibly new variant history in the making and precedents may be as misleading as they are enlightening.

    • Jim Haygood
      February 4, 2011, 8:26 pm

      Love your term ‘peace processing,’ with its vivid allusions to the proverbial legislative sausage factory. Somehow no amount of mincing makes the ‘mystery meat’ ingredients look presentable. And it smells a little off …

    • syvanen
      February 5, 2011, 12:31 am

      from danaa: I, for one, tend to temper any criticism I might have of Fatah and the PA negotiating teams with a realization that these are captured people trying to negotiate with their kidnappers and jailers.

      Reasonable sentiment but when you consider that the US and EU is paying Fatah and the PA 100s of millions of dollars each year it sort of forces you to ask: who are the jailers?

      • annie
        February 5, 2011, 1:06 am

        when you consider that the US and EU is paying Fatah and the PA 100s of millions of dollars each year it sort of forces you to ask: who are the jailers?

        not really.

  7. Les
    February 4, 2011, 10:17 pm

    Israel is unrelenting in its “piece process.”

    • seafoid
      February 5, 2011, 9:49 am

      Israel wasted the last 44 years. It may not be able to rectify this in time.
      The machine is unstoppable. It is programmed with the assumption that US hegemony is as infinite as the Jewish claim to all of Jerusalem. The US is in decline. It can’t even balance its budget. I wouldn’t want to be an Israeli.

  8. ritzl
    February 4, 2011, 11:48 pm

    Her tiredness is striking in this interview. It shows in a lack of prognoses or vision for what might come next.

    Not a criticism of Buttu. Just an observation of how much of a toll the release of the Palestinian Papers has taken.

    • Citizen
      February 5, 2011, 4:52 am

      Yes, the overriding aspect of the interview to me was her tiredness in the face of such a huge and unrelenting disparity of power. My own imagination fails, trying to place my own comfortable daily feet in the Palestinian shoes. I barely realize what its like to keep getting up every morning like that–I think of a poetic composite figure, the daily life of a resident of the Warsaw Ghetto, of a black youth or grandpa in Detroit, Gary, Chicago, of the Trail Of Tears, some “white trash” kid in a trailer camp in Virginia or Kentucky (Wikos, the bully, Springer the mocker), the google map is a joke on this imaginary me, this little Haitian mother, her crying baby, the pitiful morning puppy at my feet trying to wag its scrimpy tail… I’ve read the young Palestinian bloggers no US congress person has ever seen, noted what the average comfortable Israeli says when spontaneously interviewed
      and placed for my entertainment on YouTube. Would I pick up a small rock and throw it at her with my frail arm, trying my best to penetrate
      her victimhood armor?

      • bijou
        February 5, 2011, 8:11 am

        I was thinking about this when I watched Anderson Cooper on CNN the day after he was beat up by the Egyptian thugs in Cairo. He looked almost shocked or haunted. I was thinking that now his entire reporting might be different. If you are sitting in some cushy studio commuting from your very cushy home with all the privileges and rights that we have, it’s hard to ever really identify with those who are completely at the mercy of others’ power. But that night, you could see on his face that there was a sense of palpable fear – something he won’t soon forget. I am really hopeful that these experiences in Egypt will open the elite news media up to wanting to learn more, say more, about the powerless in the world – most especially the Palestinians.

        Americans are all so spoiled — they have utterly forgotten what it means to have no rights, no security. Some periodic “refresher courses” such as this one are long overdue.

    • bijou
      February 5, 2011, 8:15 am

      It’s not the toll of the release of the Papers. It’s the cumulative toll of being Palestinian for decades of grinding, relentless, unremitting dispossession and ethnic cleansing.

      • Citizen
        February 5, 2011, 10:11 am

        Yes, that’s what I was thinking too. Wonder if the fact a couple of FOX News reporters got beat up might change the ideology there a tad, or at least its spin? Appears to have made Rush Limbaugh go from relishing, mocking the attack on journalists in Egypt to having momentary sympathy in one of his recent 3 hr radio programs.

      • Potsherd2
        February 5, 2011, 10:24 am

        Which has always been, of course, the Israeli strategy against them.

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