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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat

'I am Palestinian Authority without any authority. I am making Israel a cost-free occupation and that is why I am telling the Americans: business as usual no more.'
Saeb Erekat talks after an Arab Peace Initiative Committee meeting in 2012 (AFP)

JERICHO, West Bank - Middle East Eye spoke with veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat at his offices last week, ahead of the Palestinian's UN statehood bid this week. 

Erekat has been involved in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations since 1991 when a friend reportedly passed him a note from Yassir Arafat asking if he would join the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference.

He helped negotiate the Oslo Accords, becoming the Palestinian chief negotiator in 1995, a position from which he has resigned several times over the years since but holds again today.

MEE: You’ve said recently that you are sure there that the US will not veto your latest resolution at the UN. On what basis did you say that?

The US is leading a coalition of Arabs and Muslims and bombing two Arab and Muslim countries. What would the Arabs and Muslims say to a veto from the US saying no to a Palestinian state on 1967 borders? It would be too much. Too much because Israel and Israel’s behaviour is becoming a burden in Europe, the United States, and all civilised nations. The continuation of such activities - settlement, rejection of the two-state solution, killing Palestinians in cold blood. 

You saw what happened to a minister who was carrying an olive branch and that’s why, if the United States uses a veto due to the pressure from Congress, this will have an array of consequences in this region. Because when you fight extremism, you don’t fight them with arrows and bullets. You try to dry the swamp that feeds this extremism with ammunition. 

It seems to me that Israel’s behaviour vis-a-vis settlement activity, Gaza, the attacks on al-Aqsa mosque, is really the main source of ammunition of extremism in this region. Da’esh is headed by someone called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is trying to call himself the head of the tanzim (organisation) of the Islamic State. Israel is led by a man called Benjamin Netanyahu who is acting like the head of the tanzim of the Jewish State. So what’s the difference between someone who is putting Western journalists on their knees and slitting their throats and someone who is putting a child called Abu Khdair on his knees, pouring oil and fuel on him and burning him? What is the difference between someone who comes from an upper middle class family from New York and Paris to the West Bank and he believes in his mind that if he kills Palestinians, if he burns trees, if he harms Palestinians, he is closer to God? This boy, this woman will go back to be your neighbours. I don’t know. Do you want them to be your neighbours in New York or Tel Aviv or Paris? 

Because such phenomena in mankind, diseases of bigotry and racism, once they are beneath your skin, no one is immune to it - Arabs, Jews, whites, blacks, Christians. And people have justified it, sometimes for sociological reasons, sometimes for psychological reasons, economic reasons, and today a country called Israel is justifying it by calling it security. Today . . . they are designing 800 kilometres of roads in the West Bank, and look at the term: “sterilised roads”. Sterilised, only Jews can use. Sterilised, look at this term. Busses, people of my kind, are not allowed to ride. What is this? And even if you master the whole media in the world, ignoring facts does not mean they don’t exist. What will be the real impact on Israeli society of this? What are you having in this region?

MEE: What do you say to people who tell you it is too late for a two-state solution?

Look, I tell these people I was born in Jericho here. That’s the oldest city on earth. Its 10,000 years old. It is still going and we have seen many, throughout these years, coming and dictating. The city was burnt one year and I believe those Israeli leaders who are insisting on calling my home town Jericho, Jeriho, the Biblical name, and who are insisting on calling Jerusalem, Jerushalaim, and Nablus, Shraim, are the same ones who will go into history as the ones that planted Israel’s destruction. I tell them, we rightly offered a two-state solution, recognised Israel to live in peace and security in 1967, and we accepted to establish our state in the remaining 22 percent of the land, that is the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. 

But unfortunately, since we signed these pacts, Israeli governments have been consistent in trying to undermine the two state solution. In Netanyahu’s mind, there is a concept that I call one state, two systems. He really believes that it’s Israel, the overriding security responsibility, and that they should have a minority of Arabs that should be granted religious rights and investment rights. 

In my conversation with my Israeli colleagues, including Sharon, I asked them to close their eyes and walk me through the River Jordan to the Mediterranean in 2020. In five years from now, what do you see - when leaders become politically blind that they feel that they can dictate with the 3,000 tanks that exist and the 2,000 fighting planes and the nuclear weapons and the blind support in the Congress and the Senate. I told Sharon once. I told Netanyahu: since Eve negotiated with Adam, I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in history. I have no army, no navy, no air force, no economy. My people are fragmented. But tell me what are you going to do with me? Christians and Muslims in this land will not convert to Judaism and become Israelis, because you have not decided yet who is a Jew and Jews are not in the habit of converting to Islam and Christianity and become Palestinian. What are going to do with me? I am not doing you a favour. I want to live and let live. What do you say to this logic? What do you say to this leadership? Of Palestinians who emerged with the courage? 

And I found out they don’t want people like me. They want Palestinian extremists who can go on TV, who can say something against Jews, record it, and ....say who don’t have a partner. What they are doing to me in the last 20 years - they tie my hand, and my legs, and throw me to the sea, and tell me go, he is not swimming, he is not our partner. He is drowning. He is not my partner. They have done everything systemically to weaken Palestinian moderates and, at the end of the day, I don’t know whose interests it is. 

MEE: They think they are getting away with it.

They can’t. They are not getting away with it. In this land, you can’t get away with things. And Jews should know that they have always lived in the east with us. We have never killed Jews and burned them and gone home and listened to Beethoven. We never did that. Such evil doing was not even thought about in this region and for them to treat us this way, how can they can they get away with it? How can you get away with the things you do? But political blindness can do more than this. I have seen it in history of people. Political blindness is a disease.

MEE: Do you believe that the opinion of the international community is changing?

Of course. What the Europeans are doing in the parliament, what they are saying? They are saying to Israel, enough is enough. We will no longer tolerate such policies. We recognised you, we supported you, we armed you, but we can’t continue business as usual. This is the main message. The Israelis are trying to work behind the Europeans to the Congress and the Senate. Well, the Congress and the Senate are 6,000 miles from here and, at the end of the day, America is also a superpower and has it interests in this region. All the wars of the last 20 years were in this region. So what do you want? 

And then, if those who say that Israel is there to protect Western interests, what interests? The coalition against Afghanistan? Those countries who were excluded for the coalition were North Korea, Iran, Libya and Israel. The coalition against Saddam Hussein? North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Israel. The coalition against Da’esh ( ISIS). The country that’s excluded is Israel. I am sure that in the West, in the Pentagon and the CIA, there are people thinking about this: “are you hearing these outcries coming out, so openly." Sure, very soon you will see it, in the American universities, think tanks, individuals, businesses. The Saudis have introduced an Arab peace initiative, telling you to withdraw to the I967 lines and they will recognise you. What’s wrong with that? No, I don’t think they are getting away with it.

MEE: Can we clear up the issue of signing up to the International Criminal Court? The Palestinian Authority is giving the impression that the accession to the Treaty of Rome is a bargaining tool. Is that true?

No.

MEE: It should be justice is justice, not politics.

Justice is justice and people don’t know how much it took me and my team to prepare for Palestine to make accessions to such conventions and such protocols. You know that PLO status in UN before 2012. We made an attempt at the ICC in 2009, and it was rejected. This is why we created the idea of a non-member state. In the charter of the UN, there is no such thing. We copied it from the 1950s when members were trying, and the Soviets were vetoing it and the Americans were vetoing it. There was this competition of veto, and we managed to get a status of a non-member state which qualifies us legally speaking to join. Now in the process of joining the ICC, Palestine needed to become a member of the Higher Contracting Conventions. We did that in April. The Hague Conventions. There are many, many things that we are supposed to join and now, in the accession to the ICC , we needed to get the signatures of all Palestinian factions, because we have to make an obligation of our jurisdiction to Article 12.3. And I had to get the signatures of PFLP, DFLP, Fatah, Hamas . . . 

MEE: But you have the signatures now

Except of [Islamic] Jihad, which is okay. What I am telling you is that it’s a long process of things. It does not happen because someone asks you to do it.

MEE: When?

To be honest with you, I don’t know. It could be as early as next week.

MEE: It’s not contingent on anything else? It’s not a card you play?

It is something that will happen anyway because we have the full right to defend our people and for me and for President Abbas, we don’t want to see the reoccurrence of attacks on Gaza likes the ones we witnessed last summer. Now at the same time, we are weighing the consequences of such things because this will have to be matched by defining Israel-Palestine relations. Doing this means that Israel will become the occupying power, fully responsible for the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. What is the collateral damage? That is what we are studying now. So it’s not like someone sitting and giving an interview in Ramallah and the elites are telling you, you have to do this and this and this.

MEE: What is the collateral damage?

Look we have many, many issues. We have 150,000 to 180,000 people employed. We have the security forces. We have the universities that we have to define. We are not committing suicide on this. We are internationalising. These steps are supposed to push Palestine back to the map, not to derail Palestine, not to interrupt the creation of Palestine and it takes so much thinking and so much paper and telling people what they like to hear is something and telling people what they should hear is about leadership.

MEE: Could you lose all your money if you joined the ICC?

It does not matter because you know Israel collects $100m of our taxes. You know before 1992, I used to be the son of this town also. There was a military commander responsible for the municipality, the school, for the hospital and Israel became the sole responsibility, but we have real concerns with the security apparatus and many other issues that we deal with.

MEE: What is the position with the threat to suspend security cooperation?

It is not a threat. You see this Palestinian Authority was born with a contract with Israel. I have obligations. They have their obligations. This Jericho is Area A. The Israeli army is not supposed to enter here. They can come to my office and search it if they wish. They can come and arrest you. They are not supposed to do that. In the course of the agreement, they are not honouring any of their commitments as per the Oslo Agreement. So don't expect me to honour my agreements if you don't honour yours. Because what jurisdiction do I have? 

(Netanyahu) has a strategy on three fronts. One, he wants to Palestinian Authority to continue but without any authorities and he managed to do that. Secondly, he wants a cost free occupation and thirdly, he wants Gaza Strip to be outside the domain of Palestine because he knows there is no Palestinian State in Gaza and no Palestinian State without Gaza. This why he waged a war against Gaza, against national unity, because he wants to derail one thing: a Palestinian State. His nightmare is a Palestinian State. That’s his nightmare. He was born to destroy the two-state solution. That is his mission in life. 

How do you cope with this? By asking Israel, the occupying power, to resume its responsibilities in full. So this is why I don't need to have security cooperation. We are not there anymore. It is not that, as some people say, a notice. It is the process of the Palestinian Authority being or not being because the Palestinian Authority that was born to transfer Palestinians from occupation to independence is no longer there. If President Mahmoud Abbas wants to go to Amman today, he needs to seek permission from a lieutenant in Beit Il, and he allows him sometimes two cars or three cars. That’s the truth. The same thing for me.

MEE: All your movements are monitored?

They have the overriding things in our lives. Legally, territorially, security, functionally, everything and I don't deny that. I am Palestinian Authority without any authority. I am making Israel a cost-free occupation and that is why I am telling the Americans business as usual no more. Stop. No more. We are not sustainable any more.

MEE: So you are going to join the resistance?

Look, it’s not about joining this or that. As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance. If the Israelis continue killing our people, the way they did Abu Ein, there will be a third, fourth five, tenth intifada. And one person should look in the mirror when Israelis and Palestinians are killed. It is the Prime Minister of Israel and the Defence Minister of Israel. That’s where responsibility lies and with those who blindly support them in Washington, in the Congress and the Senate. It just cannot continue, business as usual. 

You know, the United States should declare( itself to be ) isolationist . . . if it is  going to continue supporting Israeli settlement activities because [James] Baker told me, recognise Israel, join us. You will have your say. We fully complied with every commitment that was asked of us. Until now, if it’s my word against any Israeli in the Congress or the Senate, I don't have money for your campaigns. I don't have voters. I don't say life is about fairness and justice. We are trying to create a two-state solution, because honestly speaking, when you think about it, there is no such thing as a one-state solution. There is a one-state reality. There is apartheid, but the real solution now is two states. That’s 67.

MEE: If you sat around a table with Isaac Hertzog as prime minister and negotiations started, would you still accept the major settlement blocs?

I cannot accept settlements under any circumstances.

MEE: Right the way back to the green line?

Settlements are illegal. Once they recognise me as a Palestinian state, once I become sovereign, sovereign nations have a right to land swaps. Jordan and Saudi Arabia did 29,000 square kilometres in 1965, so did Peru and Ecuador, Canada and the US, Mexico and the US and I cannot engage in any of these tasks without Israel recognising me as a sovereign, independent entity. If they recognise me, we can engage in swops. Before recognition, how can I engage in swops?  

The question is why is Israel sending every possible envoy for the European parliaments telling them don't recognise Palestine? Why is Israel using every canon they have to stop a Security Council resolution calling for a two-state solution? I mean I am supposed to negotiate with Israel withdrawal not my self-determination. My self-determination is not negotiable. It’s called self-determination, not Israel’s right to have Palestinians or not have Palestinians determine their future.  They have their media power, money and so on. They are going to employ their extortion, their mafia policies and so on. What do I care? I am a fact on this land. So the question to them (should be), Okay, you destroy the two-state solution. What is your next step? What happens the day after?

MEE: What do you say to people who say the Palestinians are leaderless? 

Look to your question …

MEE: That they have lost faith in the PA

I am not imposing myself on these Palestinians. This is my constituency. I was elected twice in 1996 and 2006 by 57 percent of the votes. Only. In this constituency, 43 percent of the people voted against me. I represent me and this is why I am telling Hamas, the Palestinian political party, I cannot exclude you, but once we differ, we go back to ballots not bullets and Hamas must accept this. This is our magna carta. Once we differ, we go back to ballots not bullets. So leaderless? That’s part of Israel’s campaign. They don’t recognise Resolution 242, they don’t recognise Resolution 338 . . . we had elections and we elected Arafat and now since Abu Mazen was elected as a president and we were elected as council members. I was elected to the Fatah Central Committee. I don’t have a post that I was not elected to. That’s the truth. I went through four elections in the last four years and then they come and tell me they are leaderless. So I tell them . . .

MEE: They are not talking about you. They are talking about Abu Mazen.

No, no. Abu Mazen is elected as my leader. He was elected by 62 percent of the vote.

MEE: They see you as more active than him.

I work for him. I am in the same team and the same party. But Abu Mazen was elected by his people. But these are the pretexts. If Mother Theresa were to become the Palestinian president and Montesquieu were to become the head of the Palestinian Parliament and Thomas Jefferson were to become the prime minister, and they said two states on 1967, there would be those in Israel who would accuse them of having kindred relations with Bin Laden, terrorists not partners. That is the damned truth. Everyone with some decency knows it and those who chose to be silent are the same people who stand against the two-state solution. 

This world is divided into those who are pro-peace and those who are against peace. Arabs and Muslims are willing to recognise Israel, exchanging ambassadors immediately if they withdrew to the 67 lines. I am telling the Israelis my option is two states. But if you insist on calling my home town Jericho, Jeriho, refer to me as Ma Erekat and refer to Jerusalem as Jerushalaim, I tell them come and talk to me. I am not a racist. I have nothing against Jews. Judaism is not a threat to me. That’s the truth. Christians, Muslims and Jews have lived in this land for centuries.

MEE: But Zionism is a threat to you.

It is a threat to me because they are my occupiers. They want to continue to be my masters and masters I cannot live with. I am a free man and I want my freedom. So if they want this, I am telling them come and talk to me. And they tell me, oh you Palestinians. You undermine the Jewish nature of Israel. I say I recognise you, two states. And they say, no, no, no. We need to build settlements. I say, if you want one state, one person, one vote. They say, oh you undermine the Jewish nature of Israel. I tell them I cannot live under their apartheid system. I cannot continue carrying a green ID card, while you Israelis carry a blue ID card. I cannot continue driving a car with a license plate white, while Israel is yellow. This is not good for me to come to a roadblock and stop because my car-plate is this and you have yellow and you keep going. 

What do they want? I am not supposed to answer all these questions. They are the ones who have to answer these questions. I told you, since Eve negotiated with Adam, I told Sharon, I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in history. And you are the one with 300 tanks, 2,000 fighting planes, nuclear weapons, Congress, Senate. What are you going to do with me the day after? And that is my question to the [Naftali] Bennetts, the Netanyahus. What are you going to do with me?

MEE: Do you think this election will make a difference?

I don’t know and its none of my business. My business is my elections and I know, if I get elected, I am leaderless. If I don’t get elected, I am not a partner. Someone with an IQ of 3 will be able to see this and write about this fairly. Why do people in the United states choose not to see this? They see it but they decide to ignore it. To whose interest? Are they serving the Israeli interest? No, they are not serving the Israeli interest.

MEE: Is it the end of negotiations?

Look, negotiations is not an end in itself. It is a civilised tool used by human beings to sort out all problems. The problem is that Israel used negotiations as a tool and there is a difference between being a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator. Unfortunately, Israel has many masters of being non-negotiators. They want to come and dictate on me their behaviour.  They think that because I am weak, they can say: “Come here, boy. If you don’t like this, we will tell [Middle East Eye Editor-in-Chief] David Hearst that your mother is bin laden and such extortion and such dictation will not lead to peace because even in any negotiating behaviour, don't ever put the side in front of you in a position where they have nothing to lose. The Israelis have managed to do that to me now. I have a pen. I will sign on things that will be acceptable to my people. They did two things. They really managed to make a huge campaign against me by rumouring about the concessions we made.

MEE: That came from the Israelis?

Absolutely.

MEE: What, the Palestinian Papers came from the Israelis?

If you read the Al Jazeera papers, you will see that we are consistent with international law. Stop this campaign against me. When people reviewed these documents, they saw there was nothing wrong with this. The sensationalism is a discredit. Israel leaked some rumours about my sexual relations with Livni. They do everything in the book, but the truth is the truth. Nothing can change it and those of my people who want to discredit us for many reasons of their own, they use anything Israel says. But at the end of the day, when Palestinians have a literacy rate of 99 percent, I don't worry. They can hate you for five minutes and then they think and once they think, I am okay.

MEE: Are you and the Palestinian Authority aware of the frustration of the Palestinian people regarding any solution?

We are from the Palestinian people. We have wives, sons, daughters and neighbours.

MEE: You are leaders.

But we are leaders who live amongst our people. Last week, I was in Jenin on Saturday. I was in Hebron on Monday. I was in Bethlehem on Tuesday. I was at Abu Ein’s funeral on Thursday. I am there with the people. I am one of them.

MEE But the people want concrete solutions...

Yeah, but what is it that I have done wrong not to bring a solution?

MEE: The leak of your telephone conversation to the media went viral. Because people wanted someone to say the truth and they started saying that Saeb was shifting.

But Doctor Saeb was working for Palestine and born as a soldier for Palestine, with one mission in life, to create a Palestinian state next to Israel. So I speak in Arabic. I speak in English. I speak in Israel. I speak in America. I speak in London. I speak in Nazareth, the same words. That is me. Now today, when I put a motion in the General Assembly, 166 nations support me. Am I a donor country? Why would the Europeans do this in their parliaments, in the Human Rights Council in Geneva with 47 members. The last motion I put, 46 voted for me and one against. So it’s working. Our policy is working. We are gaining. Since 1948, we have never been supported by the international community as we are now. And those who don’t want to see this, it seems to me that either they are point scorers, finger pointers, or people who don’t want to see a Palestinian state. When was the last time someone put a motion in the General Assembly and got 166 out of 193? That is what we did last week.

MEE: That Palestinian state at the moment would just be a virtual state.

Yes, but we are supposed to be crossed off the map. The Balfour Declaration gave eight percent of the Jews in the land the right to nationhood and referred to the 92 percent of Muslims and Christians as the non-Jewish minority of Palestine deserving religious rights. It’s about conscience. If people lose their conscience, they are capable of doing everything. People think that realpolitik is about losing conscience, losing decency, losing humanity. That is the ill of man, throughout history.  The Germans were burning people alive, women, men and going to their wives and listening to Beethoven. What is more evil than that? And the Israelis who went on TV to accuse Abu Ein of being a criminal, they could have also had champagne and listened to something. That is the danger to their society. That is the danger to their mothers, to their fathers. If I tolerate Palestinians who stand up here and advocate killing Jews, Jews, Jews, with silence, I am committing the major crime against my people because today its Jews, but who are we going to hate tomorrow? 

Such things should be tolerated. People do not choose who they are. We are born to what we are and, in this part of the world, people have been going to the synagogues for 5,700 years, saying the same thing every Saturday and they believe every Saturday that they hear it and say it for the first time. I cannot change a single comma of their belief and faith. Next door you have people who have been to churches for 2,000 years. Every Sunday, they say the same thing and believe they are saying it for the first time. I cannot change a single word of their belief. Further down the street, mosques attended by worshippers for 1,433 years. Every Friday, Muslims say the same thing. I am not asking for anyone to convert to the other.  All I am asking: can you respect the other? That’s it. I am not asking you, David, to become a Muslim. I am asking you to respect what they do on Friday, so that I can respect what you do on Saturday and Sunday.

MEE: What is going to happen to East Jerusalem?

First of all, Israelis do not want 320,000 Palestinians to become Israelis. Trust me, and there is no meaning for Palestine, without Jerusalem as its capital. East Jerusalem is an occupied territory as much as Rafah, Jericho, Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus. 

MEE: Do you think the situation will explode into a third Intifada?

Look, if the Israelis continue with their policies of assassination, al-Aqsa, settlement activities, as his majesty, King Abdullah, rightly said in Washington recently, he said they are going to have fourth, fifth, sixth seventh and eighth Intifadas. Palestinians in 1993 carried flowers, roses, saying goodbye to the Israeli army, as neighbours. I hope Israelis will vote to become my neighbours. I hope that will be their choice. If they do that or not, that’s up to them.