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Palestinian Negotiator Details ‘Critical’ Moment for Mideast

November 28, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President Bush pledged full support Wednesday for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort on the heels of a U.S.-backed Mideast peace conference. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat discusses the agreement and the prospects for further negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state.
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GWEN IFILL: Last night, we spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about prospects for peace. Tonight, we turn to a man who has, since 1991, been involved in nearly every incarnation of the Middle East peace process, Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Welcome.

SAEB EREKAT, Chief Palestinian Negotiator: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday we heard President Abbas say that this was a test of credibility for Palestinians, for Israelis, and for the international community, including the United States. So I want to ask you a version of a question I asked Prime Minister Olmert last night, which is, what’s different this time?

SAEB EREKAT: What’s different this time is that, after seven years of stalemate, seven years of killing fields between Palestinians and Israelis, President Bush, Dr. Rice managed to provide this opportunity for us, the Palestinians and Israelis.

And they literally brought the world to us yesterday in Annapolis, telling us, “We’re not going to negotiate for you. We’re not going to make the decisions for you, but we are here for you.”

The difference between yesterday and Camp David so many years ago was the Arabs were here, all of them, and the Syrian presence was very significant, and the Saudi presence was very significant. They all came to say, “We are with a comprehensive peace agreement in accordance with the Arab peace initiative, total Israeli withdrawal for total peace.”

The international community, that’s divided on so many issues, were united yesterday. They came from the five continents to say it’s going to be a two-state solution, Palestine next to Israel, living side by side in peace and security.

Now, we should focus today on the day after. Today, we are the day after. And I believe the credibility that President Abbas talked about yesterday means three things. Number one is our ability to change the facts on the ground through this trilateral committee, led by the Americans, and I think today they appointed General Jones.

And this is the first time since 1991 that the U.S. will be the judge. You know, the Israelis must stop settlements, stop the wall, open … in Jerusalem. We must perform our security duties, meaning one gun, one authority, the rule of law.

And today, we’re hopeful, because it’s the first time — I cannot judge the Israelis. The Israelis cannot judge me. But when the Israelis violate their agreement, what can I do? If I violate, they have teeth. They close my towns, villages, refugee camps. They have the power; they occupy me. I believe the American presence here to say to you who’s doing and who’s not doing is very significant to check.

Number two is that, in December the 12th, we would resume the permanent status negotiations. And I believe it’s about decisions and not negotiations. We’ve been there before. We’ve turned every possible stone. We know the issues of Jerusalem settlement, borders, refugees, water, security. We have a year to do it, and we can do it.

Number three is the upcoming summit for economic development that’s coming in Paris, and we need huge bridges to revive our economy.

Both sides must work together

Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian Negotiator
What needs to be restored in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis today is the hope that's been missing for seven years.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like there's a chicken-and-the-egg question here. What has to happen first? You've laid out the things which you think are important for there to be movement on for this to be real, but it sounds like already some of those things Israel is not willing to move on, and you just said you don't have the teeth to make them.

SAEB EREKAT: Well, this is why we say that it's not going to be sequential. I think the best policy is a parallel policy on all three tracks.

The things that Israel should do, they know what they need to do. It's specified very well in the first phase of the road map. They just cannot continue their settlement activities. They cannot continue with their roadblocks. They cannot continue talking about peace.

What needs to be restored in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis today is the hope that's been missing for seven years. So I hope that General Jones will immediately move to the ground and start giving reports to the international community -- if we fail to deliver on our commitments, he should say that.

GWEN IFILL: When I asked Prime Minister Olmert about the settlements and about roadblocks last night, his response was, "Oh, we're already doing that."

SAEB EREKAT: Well, I don't think he's doing that. I think he promised us in good faith -- you know, five times -- to do the roadblocks. But we told him at the last meeting that none of it happened. And then they announced certain settlement activity stoppage, but the settlement activities continue.

They have an obligation to stop settlement activities, including national growth. Either you stop or you don't. They have an obligation to stop -- to open offices in East Jerusalem. They didn't do it.

They have obligation to take the roadblocks out and return to the situation as it existed in May of 2000. There are lots to be done on their side, and there is a lot to be done on my side. And this is why this trilateral committee that was formed yesterday, and the appointment of General Jones today, is a significant step. It's a different step.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you this. You were in the room, and we heard that the statement that was read yesterday by President Bush, the statement to proceed, wasn't agreed upon until eight minutes before the president took the podium.

SAEB EREKAT: Absolutely right.

GWEN IFILL: If you can't agree on something that basic, how do you believe that you're going to be able to agree on something more significant between now and a year from now?

SAEB EREKAT: Look, it's our negotiating behavior as Palestinians and Israelis. We both wanted to get things in the document that will bring us the results of negotiations before they begin. So we were actually playing with words in order to, you know, get what we want.

Had we agreed from the beginning to have this document, just focus on the work plan, on the road map activities and commitments, we would have done it in 15 minutes. But I think we both learned a lesson, that we have to come to the negotiating table not to negotiate on positions, but to negotiate on interests and to try to build a common ground. And I believe the lesson is very well learned by both of us.

Hamas, Ahmadinejad should cooperate

Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian Negotiator
I want President Ahmadinejad, instead of talking about canceling Israel from the map, to speak about adding Palestine to the map. I think this peace progress serves the interests in all of us in the region, including the Iranians.

GWEN IFILL: You heard in the news summary what President Ahmadinejad of Iran said about this process. Do you think that Iran's perceived growing influence has sped this along somewhat?

SAEB EREKAT: I disagree with what -- the statements I heard from President Ahmadinejad. I disagreed with President Ahmadinejad when he called to wipe Israel from the map.

I want President Ahmadinejad, instead of talking about canceling Israel from the map, to speak about adding Palestine to the map. I think this peace progress serves the interests in all of us in the region, including the Iranians.

And I think if we take the course of peace, that's the answer. Wars have been tested in this region. We have been living wars for decades. And the last thing we want is a new war in this region.

And I believe the answer to the Middle East problems today lies in two things: peace between Arabs and the Israelis and the Palestinian track, ... and secondly, and not less importantly, democracy in the Arab world. And I believe anybody who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist.

GWEN IFILL: Should Hamas have been at the table yesterday?

SAEB EREKAT: Well, they could have been at the table. Hamas is part of us. Hamas is a Palestinian party that won the elections. Unfortunately, when they were handed the powers of the government and the council and so on, they chose not to abide by the previous commitments or the previous governments, which is something that doesn't happen in the transition of nation-states.

This Hamas problem is a Palestinian problem today. The coup d'etat in Gaza is my problem. There is not a military solution for it. And, Gwen, I'll tell you, if I can deliver an agreement on a two-state solution by the end of 2008, I will win. Gaza and the West Bank will be once again part together. But if we fail to bring an agreement, I'm worried about the West Bank. Failure is not an option for me now. It's my survival.

Leaders have nothing to lose

Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian Negotiator
If President Abbas and Mr. Olmert delivers a two-state solution ... I believe that both gentlemen, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, will be the most important persons in this region since Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem.

GWEN IFILL: Prime Minister Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the president, both said yesterday in different ways that they trust each other. They've had these private one-on-one meetings with one another. Is that enough?

SAEB EREKAT: It's a good start. You know, you have to see where they came from. We came out of seven years of killing fields, mistrust, total loss of any confidence between the two sides.

And I believe the two gentlemen, President Abbas and Mr. Olmert, really managed to rebuild the relationships between the two sides. I'm not saying we're even there yet, but that's a process that they began. They have good chemistry, and they have good relations. And they really defined their interests. And once they both talked about these real issues, these core issues and they realize it's doable, they form the committees for negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: But each of them has their own political weakness at home. You acknowledge the weakness that President Abbas has because of Hamas' control of Gaza. And there's weakness for Prime Minister Olmert, too. And President Bush is not in his strongest political position. Do they have the leverage to get this done?

SAEB EREKAT: I believe because of what you said, what do we have to lose? I believe if President Abbas and Mr. Olmert delivers a two-state solution, a Palestine that lives side by side the state of Israel and the '67 border, I believe that both gentlemen, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert, will be the most important persons in this region since Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem.

Standing "at a critical juncture"

Saeb Erekat
Chief Palestinian Negotiator
This region today stands at a critical juncture and just cannot maintain the status quo. It either goes the path of moderation, peace, security, and stability, or the path of extremism, violence, and deterioration, and counter-violence.

GWEN IFILL: You have described yourself as the most disadvantaged negotiator since Adam negotiated with Eve. How do you get this done?

SAEB EREKAT: Well, what I meant to say -- OK, if you're going to talk about Palestinians, we are a people with no army, no navy, no economy. We are fragmented. If it's my word against an Israeli and your Congress and your Senate, I don't stand a chance. Who said life is about fairness and justice?

But at the end of the day, it's not the balance of power and realpolitik here. If they want peace with me, they know that a Palestinian state must be created. This Israeli occupation must end, because the problems in the region at this stage, Gwen, is not going to be solved by your Marines and gunships and might.

This region today stands at a critical juncture and just cannot maintain the status quo. It either goes the path of moderation, peace, security, and stability, or the path of extremism, violence, and deterioration, and counter-violence.

The key here lies in our ability, Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs, to produce a comprehensive agreement, which is doable, and we don't need to reinvent that wheel. We don't need to eat the apple from the start.

And the second thing is the democracy I talked about. I believe if we dry the swamp of the Israeli occupation, we can take all the ammunition from the extremism, and we can deliver the Middle East. But if we fail, God help us.

GWEN IFILL: How critical is President Bush's role in achieving a success?

SAEB EREKAT: It's very critical. Look, nobody could have done what happened in Annapolis but President Bush. Now, people can say, "Why did he wait seven years? Why did he do this?"

But I believe that, in the last two years, Secretary Rice, to her credit, has done a fantastic job, in my opinion. She went all the way. She got the knowledge of all the little issues. She's very, very well aware now. She can sit with us and just memorize things I have been doing with my Israeli colleagues for the last 14 years.

And the fact that they managed to bring this Annapolis meeting was a significant step. It wasn't really just a conference; it wasn't just a meeting. It was a breaking of the stalemate of something that has stopped seven years ago, a peace process between Palestinians and Israelis.

And now I think they're not going to do the negotiations for us, the Americans, or anybody in the international community. As I said, it's us and Israelis who will do the negotiations, it's us and the Israelis who will make the decisions.

But you have now a support system that has never been there before. We did not have this in Camp David. The Arabs were here yesterday. They were not at Camp David. The world was here yesterday. They were not in Camp David.

Many of the mistakes that we committed in the past was corrected yesterday in Annapolis. And at the same time, we should not undermine Camp David. In Camp David, we have turned so many stones with the help of President Clinton, so we don't need to begin on December 12th next month...

GWEN IFILL: From scratch.

SAEB EREKAT: From scratch.

GWEN IFILL: Does President Bush need to travel to the region, in your opinion? Would that be helpful?

SAEB EREKAT: I think it would be a good idea. He did not mention it to us today, but he said in our meeting with him today when he met with President Abbas, and the trilateral meeting with President Abbas and Mr. Olmert, and I was there, in both meetings, he said he would spare no effort. He will not be hesitant to do anything to help us produce the end game agreement, a peace treaty between Palestinians and Israelis.

GWEN IFILL: President Abbas said yesterday that this is an opportunity, an opening that may not ever be repeated if it isn't seized now. Why not? Why is this do-or-die?

SAEB EREKAT: Because I think President Abbas is looking at the bigger picture in the region. And he knows that if we fail to produce the agreement, this region will go down the drain towards deterioration, extremism. And once the lights are off in that region, we don't know when somebody will put it back on.

GWEN IFILL: You think violence will ensue?

SAEB EREKAT: I think it's much more than violence. I think that the consequences of failure will really go beyond Palestinians and Israelis throughout the whole region. I think it's really a critical point, a critical juncture.

And I don't think failure should be an option for any party. It's a genuine -- for the first time, it's a U.S. interest, Palestinian interest, Israeli interest, Arab interest to make this process succeed.

GWEN IFILL: Saeb Erekat, thank you very much for joining us again.

SAEB EREKAT: Thank you, Gwen.