Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Erekat Speaks

Ha'Aretz published an online interview with Palestinian (PA) negotiator Saeb Erekat in which Mr. Erekat took questions from readers. I must admit, I'm somewhat confused by the relative brevity of the interview. As I write this, the website still seems to be accepting questions for Mr. Erekat and I just submitted one, but I'm not sure if he's really still there, it's 6AM his time!

Mr. Erekat answers six questions about 1) settlements, 2) stopping Palestinians with dual citizenship at Ben-Gurion airport, 3) the real chances of improvements for peace under Obama, 4) the impact of Hamas on peace efforts, 5) Israel as a Jewish state and 6) corruption in Fatah.

1) Erekat rejects settlements as incompatible with peace and argues that Israeli suggestions to annex the larger settlement blocks in exchange for other territory in Israel proper is "dictation, not negotiation."

Granted, this type of interview may not lend itself to going into detail, but Mr. Erekat does not explain why the question should be rejected on its face. Naturally, Israel will want to retain its settlements, if for no other reason than that removing them will be costly in every sense of the word. Palestinians naturally want land for a state, but do they want that land, or will any land do? Certainly, in this part of the world, the tiniest bits of real estate can have massive value and so yes, sometimes that land is crucial, but maybe there can be a compromise on some of the land. There is no reason to flatly reject this potential compromise.

2) Erekat calls the detention of Palestinian-Americans (and Canadians) at the border and Israeli refusal to let them into Israel, shameful. He also says that he has no power to do anything about the situation (which is interesting because not to long ago he described Palestinians as being in a position of power.)

The question here is one of a state deciding who they want to let in to their country, and who they want to keep out. Nobody has a right to enter any other country in the world, and I can appreciate Israel's suspicion of those foreigners with Palestinian citizenship for a number of reasons. Some would argue that a Canadian/US citizen, no matter what their origins or dual nationality must be treated the same as any other citizen of that same country. In principle, this is true, but when the dual citizenship is from a group considered hostile to the state being entered, it's hard to blame a country for applying extra scrutiny and limitations on those from the enemy group. India, for example, has similar rules with regards to Pakistanis.

3) Mr. Erekat thinks that after 18 years of negotiation with Israel, not a minute has been wasted. He notes how Israelis and Palestinians now see each other as more than just soldiers or suicide bombers. He also goes on to say that Israeli leaders are at fault for exporting fear to their people and that the had of peace is extended, so they should stop.

The thought that not a moment of 18 years of negotiation with Israel has been wasted is an encouraging one, and Mr. Erekat deserves kudos for saying it. He's right, these processes are long, there have been setbacks, their have been ups and downs, but his optimistic outlook is refreshing. It certainly stands in contrast to the Israeli foreign minister Lieberman who said: "In the 16 years since the Oslo Accords, we haven't managed to bring peace to the region, and I'm willing to bet that there won't be peace in another 16 years, either. Certainly not on the basis of the two-state solution." It's true, there's no peace, but there's more peace and there's progress.

As for the second point about Israeli leaders exporting fear; it would be interesting to hear Mr. Erekat's examples of this. Netanyahu's speech uses language very similar to Erekat's: that Israel is ready to talk peace and to move forward anytime, anywhere. That's quite different than a message of fear. Similarly, it's incumbent upon the PA to stop the hate and denial or minimization of a Jewish presence in Israel on its airwaves and in its schools. The mistrust Erekat sees as problematic in Israel is a two way street.

4) Erekat thinks that Hamas will disappear if he can present a two-state solution to Palestinians. Failing that, he thinks moderates such as himself will vanish. The whole thing, he says, boils down to time. The sooner a solution is found, the sooner change can begin.

This seems like a gross over simplification. More than once Hamas has shown its willingness to use ruthless force against other Palestinians to stay in power, first against Fatah and here, and again, more recently against Al-Qaida elements in the Gaza Strip. Then, there is the oft cited Hamas charter, replete with vicious hatred. As much as Mr. Erekat's optimism is refreshing, it smacks of naivete to suggest that a group like Hamas--or even it's more extreme rivals, like Al-Qaida--will simply vanish overnight if he can produce an agreement with Israel.

5) Erekat says that he really has no interest in what Israel calls itself, and so if it wants to be Israel the Jewish state, that's fine, but for now, all he recognizes is Israel.

This is a somewhat disingenuous response, or perhaps the question was not phrased properly. Generally, what is meant by Israel as a Jewish state is Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Why would Palestinians have a problem recognizing this? Indeed, the term Jewish state appears multiple times in the Israeli declaration of Independence. Palestinian acknowledgement of this will help to assure Israelis that there is no desire to see the Jewish-nation state disappear.

6) In response to a question about corruption within Fatah, Erekat acknowledges that Fatah is not perfect, alludes to a "party court" which will deal with matters of corruption and mostly discusses the sixth conference of Fatah.

Many issues of interest were not raised in this interview (at least not yet, I don't know if it will continue.) It would have been interesting to hear Mr. Erekat's views on what the outcomes of some of the most contentious issues of the conflict are: Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, demilitarization of a future Palestinian state. I asked some of these questions, and if the interview continues, I hope they'll be answered.

6 comments:

David Herz said...

Fancy Saeb Erekat complaining about "Israeli fear-mongering". If my memory serves correctly, wasn't it Mr. Erekat who first publically made false allegations that Israeli soldiers had conducted a large scale massacre in the town of Jenin in 2002?

The settlement issue is really not all that difficult. There are 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel. Why shouldn't the settlers become Jewish citizens of a Palestinian state? It is the Palestinian insistence that all land ceded to a Palestinian state be effectively cleansed of Jews that is unreasonable, and indicative of deep set hostility.

If a future Palestinian government made a real committment to protect its future Jewish citizens from violence, most settlers would be happy to accept Palestinian citizenship in order to keep their homes. And in an atmosphere of true peace, the Palestinians would be pleased to accept 200,000 wealthy, industrious and educated Jews as citizens.

Fact is, considering the cost and trouble involved in evacuating the relatively small settlements in Gaza, the larger settlements in the West Bank will not be dismantled. Dual Israeli-Palestinian citizenship for the settlers is the only real solution.

mrzee said...

"It's true, there's no peace, but there's more peace and there's progress."

Thousands dead or maimed, tens of thousands of terrorist attacks and an Islamic government in Gaza is what years of negotiations have brought.

Erekat isn't "optimistic", he's a #%^$ing liar. Lieberman is absolutely right, peace is no closer, and in fact is probably further away, than it was 16 years ago

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

David,

I agree and have said before it always struck me as unfair that Palestinians would insist that their state be free of Jewish settlers. I agree that when the time comes for the creation of a Palestinian state, all residents of the territory of that state should be given the chance to become citizens.

I can understand, however, why Palestinians have a problem with the settlements. For one, it's creating a significant minority group in the area that could present problems of irredentism.

Then there are the considerations such as--how would the settlers feel about Palestinian Arabs moving into their neighbourhoods? What would it take to protect the settlers against those in the Palestinian population who may want to do them harm?

My point, which I'm not sure I've made very well, is that I'm not sure that Israelis want Palestinian citizenship, nor am I sure they want to leave. Some would, for sure. Even Lieberman said he'd leave for peace, but there are those far more fanatic than he.

Incidentally, it seems that Palestinians have offered Palestinian citizenship to only those Israelis living in the largest settlements: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1088237.html.

As for the difficulty of removing settlements: I think that's a cop-out. Settlements have been moved before, and any country that decisively defeated combined Soviet equipped in 6 days, should be able to relocate its own citizens if it has the will.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Mrzee,

First, thanks for visiting and commenting.

Mr. Erekat may have been less than honest in the past, but that’s not really germane to his statement about things being better than they were.

Do terrorist attacks continue, yes. Is Hamas in Gaza still a major problem, yes. None of this means that there was no benefit though.

Oslo probably opened the door to peace with Jordan; it forced Palestinians to recognize Israel and changed Israeli thinking such that most politicians now recognize the two state solution as the way out of this mire. I also think it had untold benefits on the individual level, helping to bring ordinary people together, “thickening” the relationships between Palestinians and Israelis and making peace more conceivable.

I think the important difference between Leiberman and Erekat, in this case at least, is that here, Erekat is the optimist. As Churchill once said “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

mrzee said...

Hi Charles,

I don't think Lieberman is being pessimistic but rather realistic.

As to things improving, that's certainly true, life has improved for the Palestinians (excluding Gaza) compared to what it was five years ago. But is it as good as before Oslo when there was no seperation barrier, no checkpoints, Palestinians working in Israel and much more tourism in Judea and Samaria?

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Mrzee,
Sorry for taking so long to answer. I'm usually better than that!

I don't know the answer to your question: If things now are better than they were before Oslo. I'm pretty sure there were checkpoints before Oslo and that terror attacks were at a much higher level than they are now (though I realize the wall has almost everything to do with that.)

I think a realist would need to conclude that things are gradually improving in the West Bank and this is because of increased cooperation and interaction. The absence of formal negotiations does not mean that low level talks about all sorts of things go on regularly and much of this has to do with the situation Oslo created. All the negotiations to date have brought Israel and the Palestinians to where they are now, and this is the result of negotiations. Leiberman is concluding that things are improving despite negotiations.