The fourth round of Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks were just getting under way and George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s American special envoy to the Middle East, was a few miles away in Jerusalem, but you wouldn’t have guessed it in the control center for the Palestinian negotiating team.
In the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department, located in a modest building above a furniture store on the outskirts of Ramallah, there was a sense of calm — almost subdued — day-to-day routine.
Department head Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, hinted at an explanation for the lack of activity. During an interview with the Forward, he noted that with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there is “dictation, not negotiation.”
Erekat’s rationale for this claim is that while Netanyahu has endorsed the two-state solution, his expectations that Jerusalem remains united under Israeli control, that the Palestinian entity is demilitarized and without control of its electromagnetic field or airspace, that settlements remain and that Palestinians recognize the Jewish character of Israel, indicate that he is not serious. “And after that,” Erekat said, “after he finishes all these conditions, he addresses me and tells me: ‘Come here, boy, we know what’s best for you. Come without conditions.’ So he gives himself the right to dictate.”
Asked whether Netanyahu’s demands can be seen as classic negotiating tactics of starting high and leaving room to bargain, Erekat replied: “I would have understood this in 1991. We were different. I was different. And 20 years later we have turned every possible stone [so] we don’t need to reinvent the wheel… we know exactly what it takes to come to an end game on all permanent status issues. We do. Now it’s not time for negotiations, it’s time for decisions.”
Referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, Erekat claimed: “When Bibi says these things, he’s not about to make a decision. He wants to make sure that he stands in the mirror every morning and says: ‘Mirror, am I still looking like I’m offering [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas negotiations? Ummm. It’s fine.’”
As for President Obama, Erekat takes the view that “at the end of the day decisions are required from Palestinians and Israelis, and not from Americans.”
Erekat, 55, has been the Palestinians’ chief negotiator since the start of the Oslo Process apart from a brief period in 2003. He is the Palestinians’ most experienced negotiator. But he describes himself as the “most disadvantaged negotiator in the history of mankind” as his nation lacks an army, an air force and, in his view, an economy. He argues that he is further hampered by friction within Palestinian society, because in his analysis Hamas gains support when negotiations fail to yield results. “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. If a peace treaty ever is achieved and put to a referendum, Erekat said, Palestinians would endorse it, support for Hamas would dry up, Gaza and the West Bank would reconcile, and the two-state solution could be implemented.
“What’s in it for me?” Erekat asked rhetorically. “I don’t want my son to be a suicide bomber. I want him to be like your children, like you, to get a chance to be normal and I’m sure that my Israeli colleagues don’t want their children to be exploded in buses and so on.”
Despite Erekat’s apparently-idealistic discussions of the two-state solution, questions have been raised in the Israeli media in recent months about whether his commitment to this path is wavering. Earlier this year newspapers wrote about an internal PLO paper that he authored, in which he wrote of the option of developing “credible alternatives to the traditional two-state solution, such as a one-state, a bi-national state, etc.” He recommended: “If adopted in lieu of the two-state solution, dissolve/utilize the Palestinian Authority and alter the mandate of the PLO accordingly.” Another option he put forward was to “re-evaluate the Oslo accords and consider declaring them null and void, partially or completely, or applying them selectively in a manner consistent with Palestinian interests.”
During his interview with the Forward Erekat said: “My position is two states, the only realistic position is two states, the only option is two states.” But he also referred repeatedly to the one-state solution.
“If the Israelis believe that this [the West Bank] is called Judea and Samaria,” he said at one point, “If they are going to call me ‘Mar,’ [Hebrew for Mr.] Erekat, call my home town Jericho ‘Yericho,’ fine, talk to me,” he said. “What are you going to do with me?
“Those [Arabs] who are born between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean in 2010 will be in the majority of this land when they go to the first grade in 2016. That’s a fact. I’m not going to disappear. I am here to stay. They [Israelis] have tried everything for 100 years. Up until 1974 Israeli politicians like Golda Meir said there is no such thing as a Palestinian. In their minds denying facts meant that they cancelled them. But then we proved that denying facts in your minds doesn’t mean they don’t exist. We exist. And we are going to continue existing.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org