Despite the support of the vast majority of Arab states to the Palestinian Authority, especially in its rivalry with Hamas, The Palestine Papers reveal many instances where the Palestinians are strongly critical of Arab governments. A lot of the denunciation is surprisingly directed at Egypt more so than Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Palestinians are also quoted objecting to Arab reconciliation efforts.
In the minutes that were leaked to Al Jazeera, all the complaining of -even incitement against- the Arabs is voiced to the Americans.
The highlight of this resentment was the fallout in the aftermath of the PA’s decision in October 2009 to defer a vote by the United Nations Human Rights Council to refer the Goldstone report on the war in Gaza (which accuses Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes) to the UN General Assembly. The deferral provoked such an uproar that PA chairman Mahmoud Abass was forced to retract the Palestinian position and have the UNHCR hold a special meeting to endorse the report, which was then referred to the UN General Assembly in November 2009. But the damage the PA had done to its image was irreversible. The Arabs weren’t supportive.
According to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit told him “candidly in public” that “Goldstone finished you. You’re finished,” as documented in the minutes. A frustrated Erekat complains bitterly about this twice on 20 October 2009 to US envoy George Mitchel, then in another meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And a third time the following day to US national security advisor James Jones.
In the same meeting with Mitchel, Erekat presents the situation in Egypt at that time as hostile to the PA, given the “power” of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and satellite channels directed at them, and concluded: “it’s a parallel government in Egypt. You need to speak to the Arabs about that.”
He blames Mitchell for doing “nothing” about Qatar who’s prince, he says, “personally” calls Arab intellectuals “telling them to attack Abass.” Erekat alludes this to what he thinks is Abass’s refusal to move the Cairo-sponsored Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks to Doha. “Your ally is conducing a personal campaign against it,” he tells Mitchell.
The minutes quote Erekat, in a meeting with Mitchell (October 20, 2009), referring to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah’s relations with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal with discernable cynicism.
Erekat’s frustration with the Saudis explains itself better in the minutes of his meeting with Jones and national security council special assistant to the president Dennis Ross on 21 October 2009. Although Riyadh supports and provides funding for the PA, it appears from the minutes that it was only with the “help” of the Americans that the Palestinians got $200 million from the Saudis at that time. Saudi Arabia, it seems, wasn’t giving the PA the kind of treatment it expected, probably a sense of superiority over Hamas. Says Erekat “the Saudis are too busy equating us with Hamas,” referring to Riyadh’s balanced relations with both Fatah and the Islamic resistance movement.
He adds that while the Saudis are “also crucial…With Iran, Hizbullah, Syria – jumping around the region. They are doing nothing” and that Abbas is “doing Saudi Arabia's job.”
“The region is slipping away like sand our hands,” Erekat concludes.
So when Jones replies in agreement, Erekat suggests that they put “together” a “matrix of interests” to see where “we” stand, meaning the Palestinians and the Americans. Here he raises an issue that is surprisingly a source of concern for him: “there’s a pattern of Arab reconciliation,” referring to meetings between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria which began in Riyadh, March 2009, followed by an Arab League meeting in Doha, April, which emphasized inter-Arab rapprochement.
“We pay the price. The pattern must stop,” Erekat declares.
What the minutes actually reveal here is that almost 18 years into the (failed) peace process, the Palestinians have edged too closely towards the Americans, to the detriment of their relations with the Arabs. On the other hand they oppose any level of new Israeli-Arab rapprochement they’re not central to.
So when Turkey hosted and mediated indirect talks between Syria and Israel in the summer of 2008, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei protested to the Americans. The minutes quote him tell US national security advisor Stephen Hadley on 29 July 2008 that if Israel thinks peace with Syria is “less costly then they are wrong.”
More revealing is the recurrence of Palestinian criticism of Egypt in the Palestine Papers which focuses largely on Cairo’s inter-Palestinian reconciliation efforts.
In October 2009 Egypt presented the ‘National Palestinian Reconciliation Agreement.’ The agreement outlined the formation of a national unity government and the restructuring of the security apparatuses based in Gaza and the West Bank which practically gave Abass the upper hand in security control. It also criminalized the use of weapons in any form of activity that’s not strictly within the role of the security apparatus, i.e. resistance operations. What irked the PA so much however, was that the agreement suggested the formation of a committee that included both Hamas and Islamic Jihad among other factions to “run” Gaza under the political umbrella of Abbas until presidential elections are held in January 2010. Although the committee has no political obligations, it gave Hamas and Jihad legitimacy in Gaza.
In minutes of a meeting between Erekat and Mitchell on 2 October 2009, Erekat informs the US envoy that Abass will meet Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in three days. He warns him that Abass “won’t say no to whatever” the Egyptians offer him. And demanded that the Americans should call the Egyptians and “make sure that whatever they put in the paper won’t result in the return of the siege.”
Erekat had not yet seen the Egyptian agreement, but by “siege” he was alluding to the possibility that the paper would result in a national unity government that includes Hamas and jeopardize foreign funding. Following the formation of a Hamas majority government in 2006, Israel and the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN) imposed economic sanctions against the Palestinians. The sanctions were lifted only after the fallout between Fatah and Hamas and the latter’s takeover of Gaza in June 2007.
Erekat thus tells Mitchell: “We don’t want any surprises… Just make sure that you see the material before they present it,” Hamas, he adds “can’t be back in the West Bank.”
In another meeting on 21 October 2009 Erekat tells Jones and Ross they “should” tell Egypt next time they have a paper, they must share it with the Americans and “your legal adviser has to review it.” To which Ross replies, “I can tell you we did put pressure on the Egyptians. I read the document (on reconciliation) it’s a disaster. We were blunt…”
Not only do the minutes exhibit mistrust of the Egyptians, Erekat’s words betray a language of defiance. In the same meeting he says “I hope the Egyptians see us now in action. We didn't want to let them off the hook.”
In other minutes, the Palestinians bluntly say they don’t trust Cairo. “Egypt is allowing the tunnels to continue” Erekat tells Keith Dayton (24 June 2007). Then in an email document on 3 February 2008, Erekat is quoted saying that Abbas’s chief of staff, Rafiq Al-Hussaini is “not very confident” on “trusting every single world that the Egyptians are saying, especially when it comes to Hamas” regarding their control of the Rafah border crossing.
Hamas might be the PA’s arch nemesis and some Arab states untrustworthy or have “bad blood” (January 17, 2008 ) with the Palestinians, but in the minutes, it is Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa who gets the lion share of denigration. “I told Amr Moussa to behave well,” Erekat tells US State Department official David Welch (December 2, 2008) after Moussa attacked all the Palestinian parties –including the PA- in a ministerial meeting at the Arab League in September 2008.
“I told him there are millions of dollars turned around from Gaza in the past, and the people are starving there, if you want me to tell Al-Jazeera. So he decided to behave well.”
Amira Howeidy has been an Egyptian journalist since 1992. She has published extensively on Palestinian rights, human rights, civil liberties, Egypt’s domestic scene and dissent movements. Amira is currently assistant editor-in-chief of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly Newspaper and is the Cairo correspondent of the Lebanese daily Assafir. She co-authored a book on Informal Settlements in Greater Cairo and co-produced the award-winning documentary Geuvara ‘ash (Geuvra lives) in 2009.