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Palestine Papers under the spotlight - MEM Seminar 25 February 2011

Samira Quraishi

A seminar planned to put the "Palestine Papers under the spotlight" has been held in the Senate House of the University of London. Organised by the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) in conjunction with the Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS), the event sought to draw attention back to the important documents leaked to and published by Al Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper; the publication of the papers was overshadowed by the turbulent political situation in Egypt and elsewhere across the Middle East.

Under the capable chairmanship of lawyer and Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Andrew Phillips, the seminar was divided into two sessions: the first was an opportunity for political analysts and Middle East experts to share their insights and thoughts on the Palestine Papers, as the leaked documents are now called; former CIA analyst and author Kathleen Christison, Britain's former ambassador to Iran Sir Richard Dalton and Director and Co-Founder of the community empowerment charity Forward Thinking, Oliver McTernan, led the way. In the second session, Al Jazeera Executive Producer and author Clayton Swisher was joined by former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. Mr. Swisher is head of the Transparency Unit at Al Jazeera which published the papers. The evening ended with a panel of the speakers taking questions from the audience of more than 200 people.

Dr. Daud Abdullah 

Dr Daud Abdullah - "When the people are given an opportunity and access to information they can influence change"

Opening the seminar, Lord Phillips asked the audience to stand for a minute's silence in solidarity with those who were struggling for their rights across the Middle East, before introducing the Director of MEMO, Dr. Daud Abdullah, who provided a brief insight into the significance of the Palestine Papers. The documents, he said, exposed the main players in the Israel-Palestine peace process negotiations, primarily the state of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States; the British government and intelligence services, the French and other Western states were also mentioned in the papers. Dr Abdullah stressed that the reason for the event was to revisit the Palestine Papers the timely revelation of which had been overshadowed by the popular uprisings in Egypt and beyond. "We are of the view that when the people are given an opportunity and access to information they can influence change," he said. The significance and the power of this information should not be forgotten or underestimated, and Dr. Abdullah highlighted the moment when the Egyptian people realised that they could no longer allow Hosni Mubarak to continue his tyrannical regime following the release of new information by WikiLeaks.

Kathleen Christison 

Kathleen Christison - "The US gives one party the fire power to suppress the other"

Kathleen Christison focused on the suffocating effect of the Machiavellian US-Israeli relationship and the Middle East conflict. She emphasised repeatedly that US policies in the region are all developed and pursued with Israel's best interests uppermost due in no small measure to the grip and influence of the Israeli lobby over the US senate and media. Although well-known by analysts and laymen alike, the Papers provided concrete evidence of the facade of "neutrality" that the United States has tried to portray over the decades; it is not, and never has been, an "honest broker" for peace, she said. The US has no interest in satisfying the Palestinian demands in negotiations or doing justice to both sides; this was apparent in the recent US veto of yet another UN resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Although the Israeli negotiators have for decades claimed that they have no partner for peace in negotiations with the Palestinians, the Papers revealed the extent of how far the Palestinians were willing to compromise, including the abandonment of the internationally recognised Palestinian refugees' right of return. Indeed, the Papers revealed the tactless US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008 dismissing Palestinian requests for compensation for refugees forced to flee their homes in 1948 with a callous, "Bad things happen to people all around the world all the time". Such an attitude has been prevalent throughout the conflict and reflects America's true alliances and interests, not to find justice and peace but to safeguard their own vested interests and those of Israel.

"The Papers don't show anyone in a good light, neither the Israeli overlords nor the Palestinian supplicants; they portray the United States through almost two decades of negotiations, and one administration after another… to be perhaps the most cynical and the most shameful of the three parties."

The Palestinian Papers have thus exposed the charade known as the "peace process" and the "Kafkaesque reality" of America's role in which "it gives one party to the negotiations the fire power with which to suppress the other". Kathleen Christison suggested that the US administration "should," in the light of what has been happening in the Arab world recently, "be listening to the world's people and not their leaders". She closed by saying that although she is not optimistic about the future, "we can hope".


Sir Richard Dalton 

Sir Richard Dalton - "The government should withdraw its support for Blair's role as Quartet envoy"

The British role in the peace process and the Middle East was analysed by Sir Richard Dalton, who suggested that there needs to be a revamp in the way in which the decision-making is made in the negotiation process. He asserted that secrecy is "a regrettable but essential part of negotiation" and that there is an urgent need for a proper evaluation of what went wrong during the peace talks and how to move forward, rather than repeat the same mistakes. He suggested that [the ex-Chief Palestinian negotiator] Saeb Erekat's statement that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" holds true and highlighted the difficulty with which such negotiations are carried out. "They may have made mistakes in the course of that negotiation," he added, "but we do have to appreciate the difficulty of the position of the Palestinian negotiators trying to respond to the hand that they have been dealt."

Sir Richard criticised the former Labour government's "short-term fixes" and its apparently excessive deference to the United States and Israel, and welcomed the coalition government's decision to be "solid with the United States but not slavish" to US policy. He also welcomed the recent UK-French-German statement underlying support for the aforementioned UN resolution vetoed by the US. Dalton recommended that the UK should deal with taboos and send clear political signals to all parties involved in the Middle East peace process and suggested that there is a "strong case to use economic measures to reinforce political messages with respect to Israel's conduct on building settlements". He was applauded loudly when he recommended that the British government should withdraw support for Tony Blair's role as the Quartet's Middle East Envoy: "He's done enough!" he cried before describing the Quartet as a "fig-leaf for inaction" which has not achieved anything except for "informal legitimisation for the idea of an incremental peace process on a false basis conducted largely by the United States. A clear break needs to be made with the past". He stated that although Kathleen Christison's scepticism was justified, perhaps the UK can now make a more practical contribution to the next round of talks.

Oliver McTernan

Oliver McTernan - "The United States should not block Palestinian unity but facilitate it"

Oliver McTernan gave an objective and thought-provoking review of the Palestine Papers, focusing on the role the continued Palestinian disunity has had in sustaining the status quo in the Middle East. He suggested that the Quartet was clearly "set up with one prime goal and that was the exclusion of Hamas from the equation". The Papers contained some not so shocking revelations of the role of British intelligence agencies in the conflict, including their involvement in the continued day-to-day torture of Palestinians in the PA controlled West Bank. He called for there to be a thorough and transparent investigation and accountability. Instead of reaching out to Hamas, British tax-payers money is being used to undermine any possible Palestinian reconciliation. The Papers also revealed the lack of objectivity throughout the peace process due to the policy-driven process based on US domestic interests in the region - notably cheap oil   rather than addressing historical wrongs and dealing with present-day grievances. The obvious lack of inclusiveness and lack of willingness to work at multiple levels, ignoring the Arab population and the local residents who have been expelled from their homes and villages, and continuing to make unilateral decisions in these areas is "staggering", said McTernan. In a conversation with the current Israeli Defence Secretary Matan Vilnai, he recalls him stating: "The myth that Arafat blew it is wrong... it was we who blew it because of our ignorance and arrogance over the religious significance of Jerusalem." Such religious sentiments over Jerusalem are still excluded from the discussions today.

The Papers also reveal how out of touch and unrepresentative the Palestinian negotiators have been. McTernan also noted that the 'US should not block Palestinian unity but facilitate it.' "Up until now," he said, "I think with the help of Mubarak, Washington's policy has been very much the real obstacle to Palestinian unity." The most important lesson to be taken from the Papers is that Palestinian unity should be encouraged and promoted by all those seeking a role to help bring a solution to the conflict. He ended by criticising the PLO's call - endorsed by Britain's Minister of State for the Middle East - for Palestinian elections by September:

"To propose elections in September without ending the siege on Gaza and without any attempt to bring normalisation to the Palestinian social and political life is another way of trying to manipulate the situation in the region. It is not an not an honest step... my advice to Hamas is that they should not enter elections after four years of embargo and isolation in Gaza and four years of political oppression in the West Bank. No one could describe elections in that sort of climate as fair and free."

Lord Phillips

Lord Phillips - Ismail Haniyeh "an impressive…moderate, reasoning man"

Lord Phillips closed the first session with a personal account of his meeting with the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, who he found to be quite an "impressive... moderate, reasoning man". He recalled Mr Haniyeh stating how nobody would talk to Hamas because they had no democratic legitimacy; then the movement went and won 60% of the vote in Gaza and the West Bank in the 2006 elections. The response of Israel, supported by the US, was to kidnap 45 Hamas and independent elected MPs. Lord Phillips re-emphasised that not has only Israel destroyed its own ideals but is undermining its own security, "and I fear that the new world that has come around in recent weeks will not be as pliant towards Israel as the one it has replaced".

Clayton Swisher

Clayton Swisher - [The Papers revealed] the main enemy of the Palestinian Authority was not the Occupation but fellow Palestinians

The second session kicked off with Clayton Swisher summarising how the documents were processed and published and their main critical findings. In the initial stages of the review of the Papers it became clear that the content was too significant for any one organisation to monopolise. Moreover, the best way to ensure that there were no accusations of taking quotes out of context and tampering with the documents was to "bullet proof" their case and put all the raw evidence into the public domain for people to analyse and draw their own conclusions. Swisher said that 20-30% of the documents in 2008 were focused on how to remove Hamas from the equation: "The main enemy of the Palestinian Authority was not the [Israeli] Occupation but fellow Palestinians," he said. The main challenge for Al Jazeera was how to change the documents' format in order to make them appeal to a television audience; this was one of the main reasons for Al Jazeera's partnership with the Guardian.

When the documents appeared in public, the Palestinian Authority went on the attack, trying to discredit Al Jazeera, Swisher himself and even the Emir of Qatar, rather than addressing the substance of the Papers. The PA missed an opportunity to explain what its strategy was and whose interests they really represent. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior PLO official, said that the Papers "show once and for all that the US is a dishonest broker!" But this, said Swisher, had been obvious from the onset.

"What's more, it belies the sense of hopelessness that they proudly wear on their chests that it's up to America [to find solutions]. My friends, when people in Cairo and Tunis and now Libya, maybe, can overtake regimes entrenched, as well-funded and well-armed as those regimes, that is the pure proof that non-violent resistance and other forms of resistance can achieve a different outcome. That is what it (the PA) has abandoned to its own detriment and that is what you see in these Papers."

Tim Llewellyn

Tim Llewellyn - The BBC has a "shameful record" in explaining the conflict

Tim Llewellyn provided some context to much of what was explained during the seminar, giving a brief outline of some of the main turning points in history that have shaped the current situation in the Middle East. He suggested that somehow the Palestinians fell into the trap and continued to make the same mistakes: "Until that stage the Palestinian position was very clear, the slogan and aim was for the formation of a democratic state in all of Palestine, for Jews, Christians and Muslims." Gradually under American pressure, Yasser Arafat finally agreed to recognise the state of Israel, which, according to Llewellyn, was a fatal mistake for the Palestinian cause.

He offered a brief analysis of the failure of certain key "peace talks" during the past two decades which helped to bring Palestine to where it is today, including the Camp David Accords "which left the rest of the Arab world high and dry". Throughout the various stages of the peace process, the Papers revealed the extent of how the notion of a two-state solution promoted by the US, Israel and the PA has in effect been made completely unattainable due to actions taken by those around the negotiation table. Llewellyn reiterated that until the negotiators acknowledge that 1948 is in fact when this conflict began, and not 1967, and the core of the problem for Palestinians is the refugee issue, nothing can be resolved. The former BBC correspondent concluded by suggesting that the British media, in particular the BBC - which has a "shameful record" in explaining the conflict or not explaining it at all - needs to be more objective and challenged about its reporting; he announced the launch of a new project, Fair News Palestine, founded with this in mind. Speaking about the BBC, he said:

"Now I think that the BBC has reached new levels of imbalance in its reporting. It treats the two parties to this dispute, as we can see from the Palestine Papers, as if they are equals. They call it a peace process as if the Palestinians are at war with the Israelis when it is the other way round; the Israelis are at war with the Palestinians. This is a process for the independence of the Palestinian people, make no mistake about it; it is for Palestinian self-determination which they deserve like every other state that the British Empire relinquished released after the Second World War; only the Palestinian dream remains."