Secret Switzerland-PLO talks revealed, fifty years on

Secret Switzerland-PLO talks revealed, fifty years on
Revelations from 1970 have emerged, appearing to show Swiss officials agreeing to advocate for the Palestinian cause in exchange for not being targeted by armed groups.
2 min read
25 January, 2016
Palestine under Yaseer Arafat was eventually given 'observer' status at the UN [Getty]

Highly secret talks between Switzerland and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) were recently brought to light in a new book by Marcel Gyr, a journalist with the Swiss national daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ).

A delegation led by Foreign Minister Pierre Graber first met senior PLO officials in Geneva in 1970 to negotiate a pact in order to be spared from attacks, according to NZZ.

The clandestine talks were first held after the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a Swissair flight in September 1970, along with two other flights, one British and one American, and diverted them to Jordan.

This was the third attack in two years, but the Swiss agreed to release the gunmen that had opened fire a year before at Zurich airport, killing an ElAl pilot, in exchange for the hostages in Jordan.

The Swiss also allegedly agreed to use their diplomatic offices to push for international recognition of the PLO and to drop investigations into the bombing of a Swissair flight earlier in the year which killed 47 people.

But according to foreign policy research institute Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (DDS), the conversations did not have a decisive influence on the development of bilateral relations between Switzerland and the organisation.

The DDS says that the Swiss authorities weighed the pros and cons of an unofficial relationship with PLO representatives for several years - but didn't actually pursue one because "terrorist acts" by Palestinian organisations against Swiss institutions persisted after 1970.

Instead, the DDS points to events in the Middle East to explain later changes in bilateral relations. The interests of various groups evolved with the 1973 war and oil crisis, and led to a situation where in 1974 the PLO was granted observer status at the United Nations.

Many of the documents relating to the events of 1970 are still classified under Swiss law, but these revelations bring to the public sphere questions over "negotiating with terrorists".

The NZZ reported that meetings were facilitated by Jean Ziegler, a controversial left-wing human rights advocate more recently known for his criticism of Israel's conduct of the 2006 Lebanon War.

In an interview with the Swiss daily Le Temps, Zieglar said that in choosing to negotiate with the PLO at a time when public opinion would have been against it, Foreign Minister Pierre Graber made a choice that was both terrible and necessary for a statesman.