THe PLO's 'Legal Unit' was a little too independent of the PA and a little too critical of the Israelis and the U.S. Under Abu Mazen it's being quickly and quietly eliminated:
Politics & Policies: A major loss for the PLO
By Claude Salhani
UPI International Editor
Atlanta, GA, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Preoccupied by the highly publicized
Jan. 10 presidential elections in the Palestinian territories --
possibly the first truly democratic balloting in the Arab world -
the closing of a little-known but highly efficient unit of the
Palestinian Authority is passing without much notice.
The Palestine Liberation Organization Legal Unit is being shut down.
The unit was created in 1998, when the PA Negotiations Affairs
Department asked the British government for technical assistance in
preparing for the Permanent Status talks between the PA and Israel
under the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords. This led to the creation
of the Negotiations Support Project, which was to provide advice on
legal, policy and communication matters to the official PA
negotiating team, led by Saeb Erakat.
With the outbreak of the intifada at the end of September, 2000, and
the collapse of peace talks the following January, the legal unit
eventually turned most of its focus to public affairs.
While the PLO Legal Unit is comprised of about 20 people, two North
American-educated lawyers have stood out: Diana Buttu and Michael
To avoid having funds "disappear" or wrongly diverted amid the
rampant corruption that prevails in the PA, the finances for the
project was administered by the London-based Adam Smith Institute
and was financed by a group of European donor countries that
including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and
The unit liaised with the international media on matters concerning
the Palestinian-Israeli dispute -- from the Palestinian's
perspective, of course. Delving into such a delicate, complex and
thorny issue was by no means an easy assignment. As can be expected,
feathers were ruffled.
Part of the colossal task the two faced was to try and counter
massive public relation efforts of the pro-Israeli lobby in the
United States -- not a minor undertaking by any means, particularly
when they came up against well-oiled, well-organized, well-staffed
and extremely well-financed groups as the American-Israeli Public
Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
Nevertheless, the duo went about their task with remarkable vigor
and professionalism. It was a job the two young, Western-educated
lawyers did extremely well, particularly given the limited resources
placed at their disposal. According to Buttu, pressure was exerted
to shut down the unit. The pressure initially came from the donor
countries, then from Palestinian authorities themselves.
It started with Buttu and Tarazi being issued with a gag order by
the Palestinian Authority leadership; they were instructed to no
longer talk to the Western media. Then within a short while they
were told their unit was being terminated, altogether.
When asked why, Buttu, who holds Canadian citizenship and was
educated at Stanford, said that the donor countries came under
pressure to stop
financing the project. Asked where the pressure on the donors came
from, she smiles, shrugs, and says, "guess."
If anyone can be blamed for doing too good a job, it was certainly
Buttu and Tarazi. In nearly 30 years of covering the Palestine
Liberation Organization from Beirut to Tunis and Ramallah, never
have the Palestinians had a group who knew how to talk to the press,
how to understand the wants and need of the media, how to give
journalists what they needed to know for their story and to cut to
the chase without the additional layers of trimmings most official
spokesmen in the Middle East are in the habit of dishing out.
Calls and e-mails were promptly returned, answers to questions were
given in a clear, concise manner, and when they did not know
something, they were not afraid of saying so. They then tried to
find the information needed and followed up. They were a breath of
fresh air in an otherwise bureaucratic and often corrupt system.
Buttu and Tarazi represented the ideal of what future generations in
a democratic Palestinian state should be. They are the kind of civil
servants that any country should bend over backwards to employ.
With a tinge of regret, Buttu explained how she convinced a major
European television network to set up a studio in Ramallah. "When
they interviewed Israelis," she said, "they had them in the studio,
live. On the other hand, when they interviewed Palestinians, they
would only do it on the telephone, with a still photograph being
shown on the screen. I thought it was unfair. It's not as though
that network couldn't afford an additional camera."
Buttu instructed her co-workers to boycott the station until they
agreed to invest in a live feed from Ramallah, which the network
did. It was a small victory, but as she explained, the public
relations battle is fought in small steps, one step at a time.
Buttu and Tarazi frequently appeared on major international
television stations and were widely quoted in the media. The reason
for their popularity is that they understood how the Western media
worked, and worked with them rather than against them. They broke
the mold, and that is probably why they will soon find themselves
It is understandable that pressure would emanate from sources
fearing a more positive spin of the Palestinians in the Western
press. But what is disheartening is that for all the positive images
they managed to project -- not an easy job given the negative news
that typically emerges from that part of the world -- not a single
Arab country has offered to come up to replace the Europeans.
The "Arab cause" would be far better served in underwriting and
supporting an elite group as this one, which managed to offer a
civilized face of the Palestinians to the rest of the world, rather
than support suicide bombers or radical imams who preach death,
mayhem and jihad in their Friday sermons.
(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)