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Top Palestinian negotiator talks peace, elections and Abbas' departure

Saeb Erekat tells MEE that he believes jailed leader Marwan Barghouti will likely replace Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president
The Secretary General of the Palestinian Liberation Organization Saeb Erekat (AFP)

Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who has been in an Israeli prison for 13 years, is the clear favourite to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president, said Saeb Erekat, the veteran negotiator and secretary general of the PLO.

Speaking days before Abbas is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York, Erekat told Middle East Eye that he was behind the move to convene the Palestinian National Council (PNC) - a body that traditionally represented all Palestinians across the world that has not met for 19 years - so that there should be institutions available when the president, who is 80, announces his retirement.

Ruling himself firmly out of the race, Erekat told MEE that according to all the opinion polls Barghouti, who is a central committee member, is favourite to win.

“I think he is a good candidate, and he should be [let] out of jail first … Because no one gets more in the polls than Marwan Barghouti. We’re a democracy. I get five percent or three percent, he gets 40,” Erekat said.

He described Barghouti as a “true statesman” and said that Fatah needed to get him out of jail. Barghouti, a founding member of Fatah and proponent for a two-state solution, was convicted by an Israeli court for his involvement in five civilian murders during the Second Intifada, although he denies this. He has become known as the "Palestinian Mandela" due to his popularity and political influence that resonated despite being behind bars.

MEE spoke to Erekat about the upcoming challenges facing the Palestinian leadership.

MEE: Some have called the August resignations of Abu Mazen [Abbas] and a few other top figures from the PLO executive committee a move to coalesce Abu Mazen's supporters around him. There are other sources that say that Abu Mazen is looking to retire and exit politics. So can you shed some light on what is going on exactly?

SE: There was a call to convene the PNC, which is the highest registered body of the PLO, which has not been convened for the last 19 years. I initiated this. 

And, as a democratic society, there are speculations [about trying to recall the PNC]. And each person has his own mind and his own brain and his own way of analysis as to why we called for the PNC now. I called for the PNC because I was elected as secretary-general of the PLO, and I believe that it’s time.

This council should be convened every year, not every 19 years. And much has happened in the last 19 years.

I think 90 percent of the Palestinians are less than 30 years of age. I’m 60. I'm the youngest member of the PLO committee, and I think we should be ashamed of it. So it was an attempt to just do the democratic process in a democratic society. 

And I respect all the perspectives from Abu Mazen leaving, Abu Mazen resigning, etc. Abu Mazen is the father of the Palestinian national movement, actually. Abu Mazen is being realistic. He’s saying, "I'm 80. I cannot leave a vacuum behind me. I need to have institutions behind. I need a new reserve committee with the PLO behind me."

MEE: Why has it taken 19 years?

SE: For many reasons. Some of them are practical; some of them are our fault. We make mistakes. It was a mistake not to convene it for 19 years.

MEE: So what you seem to be saying is that the PLO executive committee resignations were not particularly aimed at anybody?

SE: No. We wanted to see if there were technical legal issues, whether by design we could convene in an exceptional, immediate manner. Then we decided not to, that we should convene an ordinary session [and not an emergency session] and that we should prepare it very well, which is why I went against the president last week, and I met with the PLO committee as secretary-general, and I had them sign a letter to the speaker of the PNC to postpone it [until the end of the year], without the consent of the president.

MEE: There are a lot of names being floated around as potential successors if and when Abu Mazen does decide to retire.

SE: If Abu Mazen decides to retire, and he says there are no successors, we have institutions. Abu Mazen came to power through general elections. And whoever will replace Abu Mazen will come through general elections. Whoever the Palestinian people would vote for will be the next president. 

MEE: Would you put your name forward?

SE: No. Absolutely not.

MEE: Why not?

SE: I don’t want to.

MEE: But you're one of the PLO's most experienced members.

SE: It’s a choice. There are a lot of names being floated around. But I don’t want to.

MEE: The other names being floated around…

SE: I’m going to leave that to the Palestinian people. We have 26 political parties. We are normal people. We’re not perfect. And I think the laws are very open. In the past elections with Abu Mazen, I think it was eight contenders that ran against him. That’s the truth.

MEE: A lot of the more serious contenders' names that are being discussed are in jail, however.

SE: We need to get them out then. We have to get Marwan (Barghouti) out of jail. We don’t control the jails, Israel controls the jails.

MEE: How could he be president from jail, especially if a changeover were to take place in the near future?

SE: Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t call the elections until he is released?

MEE: No, but if there were an election beforehand, there would have to be some alternative arrangement?

SE: In my experience, Marwan Barghouti is the top choice in all the opinion polls, and I believe he has the full right to run for president.

MEE: Would you support his bid for president?

SE: Well it’s up to the Fatah government. He is a central committee member, and we will put his name there, and I think he is a good candidate, and he should be [let] out of jail first… Because no one gets more in the polls than Marwan Barghouti. We’re a democracy. I get five percent or three percent, he gets 40.

MEE: Could you describe what his current influence in Fatah is, aside from the polls?

SE: Well, he was elected to the Fatah Central Committee [the chief committee of the party], as was I. I think he has a lot of support. I've known Marwan very well, and I think he is very fit for the job. He’s very qualified for the job. He’s a statesman, a true statesman.

MEE: Hamas has criticised the recent moves taken by the PNC, saying it has nothing to do with reconciliation. How would you describe this moment in Hamas-Fatah reconciliation? Has it even progressed?

SE: I think we have a chance. I think delaying the PNC committee meeting could provide an opportunity for national reconciliation. I think all Hamas needs to do is to accept to forming a national unity government, enable the government to function in Gaza, and to sign up to something that says that when we differ, they will go to the ballots and not bullets.

MEE: Polls have shown that as many as 74 percent of Palestinians favour the Hamas method of dealing with Israel and the occupation.

SE: I haven’t seen it….

MEE: It was referred to in an interview you did with the BBC.

SE: Look… ballots, not bullets. If people want to choose Hamas, that’s their right. They chose Hamas last time in 2006. If there are democratic elections held Hamas should run. We’re determined to defeat them as Fatah. Imagine if you asked Obama to support Donald Trump! Would he support him? That’s your question to me? To support Hamas? Take us seriously, for God’s sake. We are a full democracy. This is very simplistic…

MEE: My question was whether the winner of an election would form the government?

SE: Hamas won in 2006, and I remember my speech before my constituents in Jericho in 2006. And I told [Hamas leader] Ismail Haniyeh when he came to submit his name for the government that you are my prime minister. You’re the Palestinian prime minister, you won! We accept that, of course. Whoever wins the elections will be the Palestinian president.

MEE: With the lack of reconciliation at the moment, and these moves in the PNC committee, how does this affect Abu Mazen going before the United Nations [on 29 September in a speech believed to focus on Israeli violations of the Oslo Accords]? Does it weaken his hand?

SE: Well Abu Mazen’s main problem is not the PNC, and not Palestinian politics. We are a lively democracy. Our key problem is a man called Benjamin Netanyahu [the Israeli Prime Minister], who has abandoned the peace process, who has chosen settlements and dictation instead of negotiations, who has openly said that he will not accept any agreement signed, and that a Palestinian state will not happen on his watch. These were public statements. So that is Abu Mazen’s real problem, and I think that Abu Mazen should define his relation with Israel. Business as usual, the status quo, which is what Benjamin Netanyahu wants, is impossible.

MEE: You’ve said you should abandon [the] Oslo [Peace Accords]?

SE: I think Netanyahu did that for us. There is no Oslo. We're sitting in Area A, the Israelis can come and arrest you - well, no they can’t arrest you [a foreign national but], they can arrest me - they can enter an area that they were not supposed to touch. They were not supposed to put a foot in Area A. They took away our jurisdiction, our economy, our territory. They have demolished homes in Area A! So the question to Netanyahu is - is there an Oslo? He said in 1993 when we signed it that "if it’s the last thing I do, I will bury Oslo". And he did it.

MEE: Yes but recognising the State of Israel, that’s a key part of the Oslo Agreements. So what is the purpose of saying you will nullify the deal [as the PA threatened to do earlier this month]?

SE: Yes, that’s the key principle. If we have a Palestinian Authority without any authority, and we have a cost-free occupation, and we have a continued blockade of Gaza - this is impossible. It’s stupid to continue like this! We don’t have neon signs on our foreheads saying "stupid". Netanyahu has buried the peace process. Netanyahu is not a two-stater. He wants one state, two systems. Look at what he is doing in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the holiest shrine for Palestinians. In five years’ time, people will wonder - why can't we have a political settlement to a religious conflict? Oh! It’s in the Arabs' DNA [people will say], but can you tell me the difference between a thug - who puts a journalist on his knees and cuts his throat in the so-called Islamic State - and a thug who burns Ali Dawabsha, an 18-month-old toddler [to death], in the name of the Jewish State?

MEE: Given that the environment has become so toxic, does publicly stating “We’re going to formally discuss getting rid of Oslo” help?

Oslo is not there. We don’t have it. Where is it? Can Mahmoud Abbas go to Amman without Netanyahu accepting his departure?

MEE: Does that move take the Israeli street into account?

SE: No. I think the Israeli street doesn’t even see us. They have decided to ignore facts and say that we don’t exist. They don’t see us. Netanyahu is saying to them; “I'm chazak [strong], I’m tough, I’ll do whatever I want, I’ll go to the American Congress, I’ll defy Obama, I am defying the Europeans, I am defying the whole world. People like to hear this stuff.

MEE: You have said that, and it’s using a broad term here, the rejectionists, through their actions, empower each other. How do you stop that?

SE: I stop this by saying that Judaism is not a threat to me as a Palestinian, as a Muslim. Judaism is one of God’s great religions, like Christianity and Islam, and this conflict is a political matter, not a religious one. And no one should go to a mosque, or to a church, or to a synagogue, to use God. We go to these places for worship, to worship God. We go for reconciliation, for peace, for forgiveness. This is the true essence of religion. Unfortunately, today in 2015, there are those of us who believe that when they go to synagogues and churches and mosques they should use God, and God became a land-broker. He assigns land, here and there. And many people tend to forget that when Abraham was given this land, the man had two sons. Does God favour one son? No. That’s why the only option is that this particular conflict should be resolved in accordance with the two-state solution. For the State of Palestine to live side-by-side with the State of Israel along the 1967 lines. There is no other solution. There is no such thing as a one-state solution; a solution requires two parties. Israel (now) will never be part of the solution. So if Netanyahu doesn’t want option A, he’s making option B.

What he’s creating on the ground is an apartheid system, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, like the one that there was in South Africa. For God’s sakes, I go with this ID card [he pulls out green ID pass for the West Bank], issued by the Israelis; here is my number, it’s green. The Israelis, they carry blue. My license plate is white and green, theirs is yellow. And there are roads I cannot use out there, only Israelis can use. So if people have the stomach, and the ethics, and the lack of scruples to tolerate such a system, they should look in the mirror and really be watching] the future of their children. Because with such a mentality, there will be those that grow towards other options. There are upper-middle-class kids that come from the United States today, to the West Bank, and they believe that if they can harm Palestinians, burn them, uproot trees, they are closer to God! I don’t think you want them to be your neighbours when you get back to New York!

MEE: I’m from Toronto.

SE: Or from Toronto! Or anywhere!

MEE: There have also been [Palestinian] suicide bombers as well.

SE: I want to tell you, I don’t exclude any extremism. I told you, the thugs that use Islam, I regard them as thugs. Murderers. I am very consistent with myself. And I say to you, that Judaism, to a person like me, is not a threat. Islam too should not be a threat. They are among the great religions. And that is the situation here. 

If Benjamin Netanyahu wants Jews around the world to support him blindly, I cannot stop him. Or what is on people’s lips, or people’s ways of thinking. But I can assure you that Christians and Muslims in this region will not convert to Judaism, and Jews and Israelis are not, after 5,700 years, going to convert to Christianity and Islam. So what are they going to do with me?

MEE: Indeed, yes. Respectfully though, many Israelis would define Barghouti as being in this second category that you mentioned, as per his actions during the First, and particularly the Second Intifada, [when he was accused of being a senior member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades].

SE: No. Barghouti has been tried and convicted unjustly, and Barghouti is one of us, he is a man of peace. He was one of the main leaders of the camp that I belong to, to recognise the State of Israel.

MEE: But he became disillusioned didn’t he?

SE: I know what Barghouti stands for. I know that he is a two-stater. I know that he wants peace. I know that he wants the conflict to end, with a two-state solution. I know him very well.

MEE: During the election, Yuli Edelstein, the Likud Speaker of the Knesset, said how frustrated he is every time he is in a regional conference with his Jordanian counterpart, as they end up arguing for three hours about the final status of Jerusalem. He said they ought to talk about the other commonalities in interest between you and the Israelis, beyond just security: youth employment, public health, etc. You’ve spoken of the critical need for the PA’s authority to be expanded beyond just the security and treasury. What was implied was the idea of gradually expanding PA institutions, instead of banging out everything in one big go under enormous public scrutiny. What would your thoughts be if such an arrangement were proposed, provided that the clear end game were a Palestinian State?

SE: [Chuckles] Well, I would tell him, you know, "You have 3,000 tanks, 2,000 fighter planes, nuclear weapons, his word against mine in the Congress - I don’t stand a chance." But having considered all this, I would tell him there are only two options. First one - two states under the 1967 lines, to live and let live. [Or secondly] one democratic secular state, which religious Jews will never accept, because they are now the majority from the Jordan to the sea - these are the facts of life. And number three, if you don’t want A or B, you have the apartheid system out there. Why can’t you understand, that this occupation cannot be maintained, cannot be sustained? You’ve been doing it for 48 years. Each year the toll is sometimes hundreds killed, sometimes thousands, and how long are you going to take?

MEE: Is that mechanism, in your opinion then, too little too late?

SE: It's not too late, it will ever be too late for a two-state solution. And I pray and hope, that these people will rise to the occasion and have the wisdom to serve their country also. Because those people who believe in dictating those settlements in the West Bank are sowing the seeds of Israel’s destruction in the long-run. They know it but they think that something will happen, something will change and something will come. And I think the sooner we achieve the two-state solution, the more Israeli and Palestinian lives we will save. So I don’t understand the conscience of these people when they stand in the mirror. It’s their children! It’s the lives of their own people! They know, the Israelis, that we have reached more than a 90-percent literacy rate this year in Palestine. They know [between 2007 and 2011] we have eight-percent economic growth consistently. Today I have 26 percent unemployment in the West Bank. Why? Because 60 percent of the land is not mine. If I get that 60 percent of the land, I’ll get workers from Israel and Jordan. They know it, very well. So it’s up to them to keep deceiving you, keep convincing you, hating us, not trusting us. So listen, we can score points as much as we want.

MEE: Of course.

SE: The point is - one day I remember I met with Ariel Sharon. And he made me angry. He said, “I’m not shy, I’m not shy.” 

And I said, “Mr. Prime Minister, can you give me your eyes for 10 seconds and trust me?”

He said, “No, I don’t trust you.”

I said, "Okay, with your eyes open, come and walk with me through my hometown Jericho. See all the thousands of people, and understand what will happen in 2010, 2015, etc."

He said, "Fine, this question does not allow me to sleep!" The only person, in all my years of negotiating, who saw the light and knew what his country would be like in 300 years was a person called Yitzhak Rabin. And because he saw the light, they killed him. They shot him! Deliberate incitement against Rabin, by those who now rule Israel today, got him killed. Israel presented an incitement in this region.

But as I told you, some people in this region today believe if we ignore facts, Israel won’t exist one day.

MEE: I suppose the thought behind Edelstein’s comment might have been that instead of getting bogged down with so much media coverage, and in preconditions, we could move forward?

SE: There are no preconditions. There is one issue here - two states under the 1967 borders. We have recognised the right of the State of Israel to exist on 78 percent of historic Palestine. And we accepted swaps, in size and value. We accepted to be demilitarised, and East Jerusalem as our capital, and to have an open city for all. So I don’t know what else to offer, to make peace with them. They want me to accept that they are not two-staters in their mind, because if they were, this would have been solved a long time ago. I have recognised the right of Israel to exist! Do they recognise the right of Palestine to exist? Challenge them! Ask them – ask them do they recognise the right of Palestine to exits? [He slams down his hand on the table.] Do you believe in living under the 1967 lines, or that 22 percent of the land should be Palestine? This is the question! It’s very open! Clear!

MEE: When Olso began, there were 100,000 settlers in the West Bank. Now there are well over 500,000, which has bifurcated the West Bank. There are many experts that have publicly said that they don’t know if it's already too late for a two-state solution. How is a practical, functional Palestinian state still possible at this point?

SE: I cannot force Israelis to make peace with me - you know, peace is made when the parties realise that their metrics of interest are peace. It’s cheaper to have peace. So the day will come when Israel realises that they should make peace with us and give us our independence and freedom. I’m not going to allow you to be my masters. I will not allow myself to be subjugated to them. To hell with them, in such a relationship! They can’t ignore me. I want to be their neighbour, I don’t want fences up, or walls between us. I want to have the best relations, academically, culturally. Theatre! Interactions! We’re so close together! We’re so close in our culture, our heritage, in our religion and so on. And the day will come, then they’ll realise that the biggest mistake in Israeli history was the settlement activities in the West Bank. In the strategic mistake of nations, this was Israel’s biggest mistake. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians have no option than to be neighbours, that’s the truth. I’m not asking Jews to fast at Ramadan. I’m not asking Muslims to celebrate Hanukah or Rosh Hashanah. I’m asking them just to accept and respect. And I don’t think this is too much to ask. Honestly. That’s not too much to ask. If we know how to accept and respect, I think we’re going to have peace. Stop these silly wars and hallucinations and these stupid talking points, they waste so much time in this government in Israel. They devote all their time to telling how they are right, but we just want peace.

This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

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