Jerusalem — When representatives of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — known collectively as the Middle East Quartet — arrived here for crucial meetings in March, they met, as usual, with the Palestinians in Ramallah. And, as usual, Saeeb Erekat, the indefatigable Middle East negotiator who has led the Palestinian side in peace talks since the mid 1990s, represented the Palestinians.
The only thing at all unusual about this event was the fact that Erekat had submitted his resignation as chief negotiator one month earlier.
Erekat’s February 12 resignation, after devastating leaks laid bare the concessions he had offered Israel during secret talks in recent years, was widely reported when he submitted it. What was much less noted at the time was that Erekat carried on in his old job as if nothing had changed.
“He submitted his resignation to the [Palestinian Authority] president [Mahmoud Abbas] but the president has still not accepted it so he’s still in his position as head of the negotiating team,” said Ashraf Khatib, an official in Erekat’s Negotiations Affairs Department.
Peace talks, of course, have been nonexistent between Israel and the P.A. since November, when Israel turned down American entreaties to accept a package of security benefits and diplomatic guarantees in exchange for extending for three more months a partial freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinians responded by refusing to return to the negotiating table despite pressure from the United States.
In the absence of talks, violence is now escalating. In March, Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, launched several rocket attacks from Gaza that wounded two Israeli civilians in southern Israel. The group claimed it was retaliating for Israeli attacks. Israel responded with air strikes in Gaza against rocket launchers in which four civilians, including three children, were killed along with several combatants. The terrorist group Islamic Jihad responded with rockets of its own that hit cities in southern Israel, leading to further Israeli air strikes. On March 23, a bomb that exploded near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station killed a 59-year-old woman and wounded at least 30 others.
But even as new violence overwhelms prospects for peace, Erekat remains an indispensable man for the Palestinian Authority, which has condemned the recent attacks.
“On the Israeli side, the negotiators change with the color of the government, but on the Palestinian side, Erekat has always been there,” said former negotiator Hanna Siniora, who is now co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.
Nidal Foqaha, head of the Ramallah office of the Geneva Initiative, an influential nongovernmental organization that produces detailed proposals for a final-status agreement, said that the ethos of peace is deeply ingrained in Erekat. “He is a highly educated Palestinian who has an open mind, education from the U.S., and who is extremely rational,” Fuqaha said.
Erekat, 55, a member of a prestigious Jericho family, was talking of coexistence and negotiations before it was mainstream to do so. In 1982, in one of his first published articles, he stuck out his neck and called for dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli academics. As a result, some of his students at An-Najah National University, in Nablus, where he then taught, started boycotting his lectures.
Erekat had begun lecturing in 1979, immediately after earning a master’s and an undergraduate degree in international relations at San Francisco State University. In 1983 he earned a doctorate in peace studies from the University of Bradford, in England. He was viewed shortly afterward as a rising star by leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. His ability to present the Palestinian cause to the West was first seen in a 1987 ABC-TV “Nightline” program in which Palestinian leaders discussed the demands of their people. Unlike many Palestinian leaders, he has no past involvement in terrorism or in the so-called armed struggle.
Though hard-nosed and sometimes biting in his criticism of both Israeli and American leaders, Erekat is widely seen in Jerusalem and in Washington as a moderate who is committed to the establishment of a Western-style democracy for Palestinians. He is sharply critical of Hamas, and believes that if his camp could negotiate a peace treaty, the Palestinian public would support it and Hamas’s support would dry up.
“If I have an end-game agreement, they will disappear. If I don’t have an agreement, an end game, I will disappear,” he said last June, in an interview with the Forward. The only fault in his prediction back then was that he was talking of his downfall being Hamas — not by members of his own office in collusion with Al-Jazeera.
It was an exposé on Al-Jazeera in late January, based on hundreds of documents leaked from within his office, that forced Erekat to resign. Though none of his positions was taken without P.A. authorization, the Palestinian public viewed many of his secret concessions, for which they had not been prepared, as tantamount to betrayal. These included Erekat’s readiness to let Israel retain large sections of East Jerusalem. Erekat also agreed that the right of return for Palestinian refugees would be restricted to the territory of the nascent Palestinian state, with only a symbolic number to be allowed to return to Israel proper.
The talks, most of which took place during the tenure of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, between 1999 and 2001, collapsed in the end, despite these concessions. Partisans and analysts have been left to argue about whether or not Israel’s failure to capitalize on Erekat’s flexibility, now revealed, demonstrates a case in which it was Israel that missed a chance to miss an opportunity.
But on the Palestinian side, a February 19 op-ed by Jerusalem Palestinian Najat Hirbawi and Belgian journalist Stuart Reigeluth in the Dubai-based Gulf News was positively jubilant about what then looked like his forced departure. “Saeb Erekat’s resignation as chief Palestinian negotiator is a good thing for potential statehood [by unilateral declaration] in September and peace with Israel,” the piece read.
The writers said that the prospect of a new chief negotiator provides a “tremendous opportunity” to secure a deal.
Others never expected that Erekat’s departure would last.
Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, told the Forward even before the Quartet meeting that Erekat would continue to play a “foreign policy role.” And Gidi Grinstein, an Israeli negotiator during the Oslo peace negotiations, described Erekat as “one of the few Palestinians” capable of drafting a final-status agreement.
“Erekat will continue to be part of the Palestinian leadership, notwithstanding his stepping down from his position,” Grinstein predicted. Erekat also remains a member of the P.A.’s legislature and of the PLO Executive Committee.
But while few doubt Erekat’s ability, some criticize him for failing to close a deal. The “Palestine Papers,” as the leaks that forced his resignation were called, underscore that he is “shrewd and understands where Israel’s red lines are,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative-oriented policy institute. But he failed to share his insights with his constituency and “soften it for peace,” Schanzer said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org