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

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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  Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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