Saeb Erekat is a longtime member of Fatah and the chief negotiator for the PLO. He is also a member of the Palestinian parliament, representing Jericho. He has promoted a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the mid-1980s. When teaching at An-Najah University in the West Bank in the 1980s, he opened an exchange program, bringing Israeli students to a Palestinian university.
“I ask Israel to open their eyes and see what’s developing in the West Bank. It’s a picture of racism, a new apartheid worse than in South Africa, and it will lead to an enlarged cycle of violence. My job is to save the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, and I don’t see how to do that without a meaningful peace process. --Saeb Erekat
Kate Seelye: So, what do you think of this Hamas victory?
Saeb Erekat: I think Hamas sailed to victory not because they had a program of economic recovery or peace or social whatever … their campaign was Fatah’s corrupt government and Israel’s unilateralism. Israel left Gaza not because of Saeb Erekat’s negotiation, but because of their heroic resistance.
The Americans and the Israelis are calling the Hamas win a disaster.
I think the Americans and the Israelis must try to respect the choice of the Palestinian people. And to recognize that they don’t have the exclusive rights to what’s wrong and what’s right. We are in strong opposition. We are determined -- my party, myself as a council member -- to maintain the social fabric of the Palestinian people, to maintain our commitment to peace. The Israelis want to negotiate? They have nothing to do with the government, the executive council. I’m their partner in the negotiation. I’m the PLO. I invited them unreservedly to resume permanent status negotiations and abandon unilateralism and dictation. Arafat was not a partner after having recognized Israel. President Abbas is not a partner. Is Israel seeking a Palestinian partner? Or are they seeking a nonpartner to accept their policies as faits accomplis? C’mon …
How do you see it?
These people aren’t serious about permanent status negotiations or end game. They want to dictate my future on me. They want to dictate their borders on me. They want to dictate the fate of Jerusalem on me. “C’mere, boy, this is what we dictated to you and this is what you must accept. If you don’t accept, you can join bin Laden and the rest of the terrorists in the world. If you accept, then you become a partner.” Well, it’s not going to work this way. I don’t have a neon sign saying “stupid” over my head.
What do you have to negotiate with?
I don’t have an army, it’s true. I don’t have a navy, it’s true. I don’t have an economy, it’s true. I may be the most disadvantaged negotiator since Adam negotiated with Eve. But don’t they realize that if they want to make peace with the Palestinians and if we want to realize President Bush’s vision of a two-state solution, they need me? They need a partner on this side. They need a pen that can sign agreements. Since 1948 -- maybe the exception was 1956 with the Suez crisis -- all the American governments do is come to Israel, see what Israel can do, what they can’t do, and shape their policies on the basis of what’s possible. Today, what’s necessary from President Bush is a policy of “what’s needed.” Today, the U.S. borders are no longer with Canada and Mexico. Today, the U.S. borders are with Turkey, Iran, the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan -- they’re here. It’s American kids who are dying in Iraq, Afghanistan. … To fight and defeat the likes of bin Laden, I don’t think you can do it with military means. Two things are needed to do it: democracy and peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Anyone who says Arabs aren’t ready for democracy, in my opinion, is a racist. We know President Bush’s parameters, we know his vision -- it’s a two-state solution on the 1967 borders. Let’s resume negotiations -- let’s do it!
But you now have a majority in government that refuses to deal with Israel.
Look, I want this government to recognize the two-state resolution, to recognize all the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions. I want them to accept the road map and Arab peace plan of 2002. But having this government’s refusal to negotiate should not be a pretext for Israel because the PLO is the counterpart to Israel in any negotiation. Let’s say we reach an agreement on permanent status, what will we do? Take it to the Palestinian Council for approval? No! The PLO is not accountable to the [Security] Council and vice versa. We will take it to a national referendum.
What kind of numbers?
I think we’ll get more than 70 percent -- in a genuine end game, permanent status for Israelis and Palestinians, Jerusalem, settlements, borders, and refugees. If we’re telling Palestinians and Israelis, “That’s it, we’re ending the conflict”; if we’re telling Palestinians, “You can send your children to school without worrying about them coming back”; if we’re telling Israelis, “You don’t have to worry about suicide bombers” -- it will get 70 percent in Israel and more among the Palestinians.
But how can Hamas not be part of this equation?
Hamas is saying they are not responsible for negotiations -- it’s the PLO that’s responsible. What do we have to lose? Isn’t negotiating painfully for five years better than exchanging bullets for five minutes? If they refuse this offer, a way out, the two-state solution … if they refuse everything and they’re the geniuses and we’re the wishful thinkers -- what does that tell you? What are the Israelis going to do? Dictate the walls as permanent status, annex the Jordan Valley, annex Jerusalem, drop the issue of refugees, turn every town in the West Bank into a prison, have the World Food Program distributing food so the Palestinian don’t starve? What do you think this will do? It will undermine the Palestinian moderate camp and bury it forever. Desperation will lead to desperate acts and will create more violence, not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but in the whole region, and the forces of extremism in this region will be crowned. I don’t understand Israeli politicians who lack the courage to come back to the negotiating table. Even before the Hamas victory, why did they suspend the negotiations?
Are you calling on the Israelis to talk to President Abbas?
President Abbas is the elected Palestinian president. He’s the one with the mandate as head of the PLO Executive Committee. Hamas cannot stop that. If a permanent status treaty is reached, we will take it to the PNC [Palestinian National Committee] and then to a public referendum. The results of the latest poll show that 60 percent of those who voted for Hamas want a resumption of permanent status negotiations.
But some say the vote was a vote against what little the peace process has achieved.
It was a vote in anger that the negotiations were not taking place. What does Israel have to lose? If Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] is inviting them back to the table, to resume permanent status negotiations, where the negotiations left off, in Tabah, in 2001, what do they have to lose? Don’t they want to live in peace and security? Yes. Do they want to live and let live? Yes. I’m in it for this -- I don’t want my son to be a suicide bomber. I’m a father who’s sick and tired of wondering, and I’m sure the Israeli fathers feel the same. This is not living. We don’t have an alternative to negotiation.
Palestinians will say, “What have 10 years of negotiations achieved?”
I have not wasted a minute of these 10 years. This is a unique conflict. This is not the borders of Ecuador and Peru, of Canada and the United States, the merger of banks. These are the issues that make Palestinians and Israelis breathe. These are the issues of gods and prophets. There is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Wailing Wall, where people of three faiths go with their hearts and souls. Nothing in life is more important to these people than these things. Now we sit down and try to solve this problem of Jerusalem. In Jericho, I look from the window of my home -- where I was born -- and I see the place where Jesus did his fast for 40 days, where he was tempted by the devil. In Jerusalem there is the place where the Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. We are a people whose history is bound up with history. We haven’t been wasting time on the peace process. We are turning every stone.
Ten years ago, it was “‘what Palestinians?” They [Israelis] have recognized the existence of the Palestinian people. They call the West Bank “the West Bank” -- they used to call it Judaea and Samarria. They wanted Gaza to sink in the sea. Today all Israeli parties recognize the Palestinians -- some on 1967 borders, some playing games with walls. Making peace here is not about signing an agreement -- it’s about agreeing to change, to change their minds, the way they think. Peace-making between Palestinians and Israelis is going to take a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of educating, a new way of planting, a new way of cooperating. So to those who say, “What did 10 years bring us, what can 10 years do with a system of belief that for some people is 5,700 years, for others 2,000 years, for Muslims some 1,600 years?” In 10 years … we have come a long way.
Mahmoud Zahar [the newly elected Palestinian Foreign Minister] has suggested he won’t accept the road map.
I’m on the council in opposition and I will oppose such policies of Zahar, but I won’t be the spokesperson for Hamas. I’m just telling Hamas to put the interests of their people above anything else. The slogans of the elections are yesterday. The new reality: You are responsible. So take the Palestinian national interest above anything else. Palestine is much more important than Iran, Syria, all these axes in the Arab world. I’m urging Hamas to take the letter of designation to Mr. Haniya, their prime minister, and to accept it because in doing so, they will do themselves and the Palestinian people the greatest favor. How they will shift, how they will move -- that’s their business. But in opposition, I will make sure no one will be allowed to touch our social fabric -- women’s freedoms, religious freedoms, individual freedoms. We will stand tall for the peace process, supporting a two-state solution and a negotiated settlement. They must understand that being in government doesn’t give you the right to change the lives of people. They can’t.
Can Fatah reform itself?
Absolutely. Fatah is no different from any other party. It is subject to reform. It’s a great party. It’s been leading the Palestinian movement for the last four decades. We’ve created so many things, so many institutions -- we’re the ones who made democracy in this region! We’re the ones transferring power in transparent fashion, in peaceful fashion. Where do you see this in the Arab world? C’mon, guys, give us a little credit! I’m not saying we’re perfect.
The European Union has said it will cut funding. This will affect you.
One thing, you mention $700 million. I don’t know where you get these figures. The United States has never transferred directly to us $1 for our infrastructure. Neither did Europe. Neither did Japan. I was the government minister for nine years. We did schools, hospital, roads, water systems, working with the United States -- they had their contractors working here, and they paid them directly. The United States has never transferred a single dollar to these projects through the [Palestinian] Authority. They did it through their own NGOs. Europe uses NGOs. The Japanese have contracted through the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme]. Why can’t we continue doing this? Why this talk about collectively punishing the Palestinian people? That’s not good.
How do you counter Israel’s policy of unilateralism? What’s the plan?
Look, I was 12 years old when the Israeli occupation came to my hometown, Jericho. I’m married now, with four children. My twin daughters are 23. I’ll be a grandfather. And believe me, Christian and Muslim Palestinians will continue to be Christian and Muslim Palestinians. They won’t convert to Judaism and become Israeli, and if they do, I don’t think they [the Israelis] will accept them. And I don’t think Jews and Christians will convert to Islam and become Palestinians. So what are the choices of Palestinians and Israelis? Can some genius in Israel walk me through the year 2025? Look, Israel has three options. They really feel that religion and history and the River Jordan to the Mediterranean should be the land of Israel -- fine! But I want to be an equal citizen, with an equal vote. And they say, “Oh, look at these evil Palestinians. They want to undermine the Jewish nature of Israel!” Well, make up your mind. I’m offering you a two-state solution and you’re saying no. You want Area A, a settlement there, a settlement there, Jerusalem, you want to suffocate me with your military machine, and you know that if it’s my word against his in the Congress and the Senate, I don’t stand a chance. Who said life was about fairness and justice? I don’t have money. I don’t have a campaign. I don’t have votes. I’m a man of peace, that’s all. I believe that my job is to save the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. So that’s their second choice: a whole state called Israel -- let’s have it. But I want my equal rights.
The third option, they should be ashamed for even thinking about it. There are roads in the West Bank today that I cannot use as a Palestinian, only Jews can use. Is that the option Israel wants? As Jews, as people who suffered most in the history of mankind at the hands of evil -- Hitler, bigotry, anti-Semitism. Is that the Israel of 2006 that people want? That’s shameless.
They say it’s in the name of security.
In the worst apartheid in South Africa, blacks were never prevented to use roads that whites use. “Wake up,” I tell them. “I’m offering you a two-state solution. I’m offering you peace. I’m offering you to come back to the negotiating table.” The uniqueness of my conflict with the Israelis is that it cannot be played as a zero sum game. It’s two winners or two losers, and two losers we have been -- dictation, walls, settlements, occupation, bigotry, racism. And winning is only through the path of peace and negotiation. That’s what I’m offering them. And we can make it.
Except they’re faced with a Hamas government, sworn to fight Israel’s government.
So if I win the elections in four years time, will they talk to me? Or will they find a pretext that I’m not a partner? President Arafat was the one to recognize the state of Israel’s right to exist. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for this. He ended up [under] siege because he was not a partner. Abu Mazen is the most dedicated Palestinian and Arab I’ve ever met in my life -- to peace, reconciliation and security. He was elected in January 2005, in one year to the legislative elections of 2006. What did they [Israel] do? They did not even allow him to buy the bullets for his bodyguards. And they consider him a nonpartner. And, now, Hamas, a nonpartner. Were we partners yesterday?
Are you saying Israel is partly to blame for Hamas coming to power?
No. What I’m saying is the major blame is here. Fatah, us, the government. But, of course, Israel’s unilateral steps, dictation, not achieving peace with us, abandoning the negotiations, calling us nonpartners, have added to the Hamas victory. But I take the big credit for the blame, the Palestinian Fatah Party. But Israel can’t escape the blame. Unless Israel wants to treat itself as a country that can’t make any mistakes -- fine. I’ll take the blame alone. But I ask them to open their eyes and see if their policies -- turning towns into prisons, building 471 road blocks -- if these are the policies of far-sightedness and wisdom or the policies of short-sightedness and failure. That I can’t answer. But I ask Israel to open their eyes and see what’s developing in the West Bank. It’s not a good picture. It’s a picture of racism, a new apartheid worse than in South Africa, and it will lead to an enlarged cycle of violence. My job is to save the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, and I don’t see how to do that without a meaningful peace process.
This interview between Kate Seelye and Saeb Erekat took place in Jericho in March 2006. It has been edited for clarity.