The Qatar-owned Arabic Al Jazeera television network certainly had an axe to grind with the Palestinian Papers, an archive of 16,000 secret documents covering a decade of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which it released this week. To determine whose axe, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources studied the dramatis personae.
Most actively concerned and targeted was Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Also highly visible was the owner of Al Jazeera, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani.
In private conversations, Abbas said he was sure the emir had planned the release to crush him and the Palestinian Authority's Ramallah-based institutions and present their undoing as a surprise New Year's gift for Tehran.
He was correct about that part of the scheme. Our sources confirm that the emir co-engineered the leaks with Wadah Khanfar, the Palestinian director-general of Al Jazeera and a former confidant, to blacken Abbas and his faction. Bin Thani wanted to please Tehran while Khanfar boasts radical views and strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. He is also close to several Hamas leaders based in Damascus.
Five months ago, this pair started work on a plan for discrediting Abu Mazen for good. Tehran and its Middle East allies were meant to be impressed by Qatar's competence as a major mover in the Persian Gulf, with the ability and ambition to destroy Abbas and his Ramallah faction while at the same time exposing the impotence of the US and Israel, on the one hand, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the other.
American positions in the Palestinian and Lebanon were scripted to tumble simultaneously.
Under the influence of WikiLeaks, Thani and Khanfar decided to get hold of and publish secret materials explosive enough to damage the reputations and credibility of Abbas and his loyalists irreparably.
A French-Palestinian and an American-Palestinian supply the goods
They did not have to look far. They were made available, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources disclose, by two ex-staffers of the NSU (the Palestinian negotiating team's support group), who before they left, downloaded from its computers a large file of confidential documents relating to several years of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Both men were now conveniently employed by the English-language station of… Al Jazeera.
The two men are identified here as Ziad Clot, a Frenchman of Palestinian descent who as the PLO's legal advisor in 2008 came into possession of the documents; and Clayton Swisher, a Palestinian-American who covered the 2008 US presidential elections, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the ongoing war in Afghanistan for Al Jazeera. He wrote a book called “The Truth about Camp David.”
Both were willing to feed the documents into an anti-PA campaign because they believed that the three senior Palestinian negotiators, Abu Mazen, Saeb Erekat and Abu Ala (Ahmed Qureia), who had conducted talks with Israeli leaders in 2009 and were close to Washington, had betrayed the Palestinian people's core interests.
The evidence in the documents convinced the two former NSU staffers that the three PA negotiators had gone too far and made too many concessions to Israel on Jerusalem, the West Bank settlements, the Palestinian (1948) refugees' Right of Return and the future of Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel.
The Palestinian Authority and its chairman were also reviled for letting Palestinian security officials work hand in glove with Israel against the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
This bombshell was put together in deep secrecy to preserve its shock value. Al Jazeera's Middle East staffers were kept far removed from the processing of the materials, the conduct of interviews and the final assembly and editing for broadcast. Journalists were imported from faraway beats in the US and Europe to enter Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah through Israel under cover and obtain recordings, video footage and photos.
Al Jazeera's backers in step with Iran, Hizballah, Hamas
Sunday, Jan. 23, Al Jazeera announced the first batch of Palestinian Papers would be run at 10 p.m. That day too, and by no coincidence, Lebanon's pro-Western leader Saad Hariri was finally given the boot by Najib Miqati winning just enough votes in parliament to form a Lebanese government.
In Beirut, Hizballah, Damascus and Tehran celebrated the appointment of their agent as Lebanon's next prime minister and the death blow for key US Middle East aspirations, plans, while at the same time, Al Jazeera enabled their Palestinian allies, especially Hamas, to pull a fast one on the PA in Ramallah.
(See a separate article on Iran's military moves this week).
Not everyone buys this Palestinian version of the Al Jazeera episode.
Some intelligence and research officials in Washington and the Middle East are quoted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources as strongly suspecting another hand – that of US intelligence hand – behind the leaks. According to that scenario, the Qatari ruler genuinely believed he was serving Iranian interests, unaware that he was given the wherewithal for doing so by a clandestine pro-American source.
And indeed, Wednesday, Jan. 26, Ereket accused Swisher of being "a former CIA agent" who joined with the British Alastair Crooke in an underhand scheme to leak "secret maps, charts and documents" to Al Jazeera.
The rationale for a US involvement if true would be the following:
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have decided to abandon their effort to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation and are walking away from their involvement in the process. They were persuaded to do so by the assessment they share with Israel that Iran will not be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015. Therefore, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suddenly has lost its urgency, regardless of whether or not US diplomacy can pull it off.
For Obama, the Middle East dispute is a write-off
Having turned its back on Middle East diplomacy, the Obama administration can start writing off its two-year investment in nurturing America's special relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its efforts to accommodate PA Chairman Abu Mazen. Washington's attitude toward Netanyahu may soon therefore switch to "chill."
In any case, the administration believes Israel is heading for a new election some time soon and so diplomatic momentum until the outcome is known would be pointless.
The case of Abbas is more complicated.
For two years, President Obama promised the Palestinian leader again and again that he regarded the early creation of an independent Palestinian state a central issue of his foreign policy. By lifting his hands off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, Obama would relegate Palestinian statehood to a distant future.
According to this rationale, even if Washington wasn’t directly involved in leaking the Palestinian documents, someone there must have know about the Qatari ruler’s plan to publish them and could have taken steps to abort publication – had it chosen to do so.
By withholding this step, the administration has left Mahmoud Abbas to sink or swim. With very little popular Palestinian backing to begin with, his credibility may take a further dive as a leader able to deliver a better future. Or alternatively, he might perversely cash in on the leaks, presenting them as a cowardly and perfidious stab in the back to the Palestinian cause and calling for a united front to defeat it.
President Obama, for his part, may gradually cool his ties with Abu Mazen and the government in Ramallah, and turn his back on the never-ending Palestinian issue for the time being.