Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saeb Erekat has been at the forefront of negotiations between the Palestinians and the representatives of Israel and the US since 1991, leading Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to dub him “the memory of the negotiations.” A controversial figure at times, he has stepped down from his position as the Palestinian’s chief negotiator more than once, only to return to the fray once more.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Erekat on the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories about the latest attempts to finalize a peace agreement, his most recent announcement of his resignation, and future plans to secure the recognition of ‘Palestine’ as an sovereign state.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Lets start with the “framework agreement” that US Secretary of State John Kerry is attempting to broker. Are you ready to sign on?
Saeb Erekat: The last meeting regarding negotiations was held on November 5 last year. Both sides ventured into the abyss. The result, after three months of negotiations, is that Israel killed 33 Palestinians in cold blood, issued tenders for 5,992 settlements (representing three times the natural growth rate of New York City), and demolished 212 homes across Jerusalem and Area C. Because of all this, I submitted my resignation. I can no longer bear to continue in light of these crimes committed by Israel. After that, negotiations took another turn—the talks became divided into Palestinian-US and Israeli-US conversations.
To my knowledge, up to that point the US did not put forward anything official or provide a plan. It tested the waters, evaluating ideas and reactions, and their approach toward negotiating these issues was very clear. On December 8, after a long session between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) and John Kerry, Abbas wrote a letter to President Barack Obama that said he could not accept this offer, as a Palestinian or as a representative of his people.
Q: What did he say in the letter?
First he said: ‘We cannot accept Israel as a Jewish state.’ Second: ‘We cannot accept any Palestinian state within the ’67 borders without Jerusalem.’ Third: ‘We cannot accept any Israeli soldiers on Palestinian territory, whether it be land, sea, air, or border crossings, after gradual withdrawal is completed.’ Fourth: ‘I cannot accept any solution without allowing refugees to exercise their rights as outlined in Resolution 194, namely, the rights of return and compensation as well as the release of detainees.’ This is the Palestinian position. Abu Mazen went to the Arab League, and they sent an official letter to the permanent members of the Security Council and Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, affirming what Abu Mazen had said to the US administration. The party responsible for following up with the initiative, Qatar, sent a similar message. Now, we hear that Kerry is returning to the region. What is he bringing with him? How will it be promoted? What guarantees are there? We do not know because it is too early to make any determinations.
Q: So the limit for any new proposals was outlined in Abu Mazen’s letter?
That isn’t our upper limit, it is our basis for the peace process. Incidentally, and contrary to what others are telling us, these negotiations will last nine months, and the goal is to come to an agreement on all final-status issues. There is a provision in the agreement with Kerry that there will be no transitional or interim solutions and that extending negotiations even one minute beyond the nine-month period is prohibited. The US administration is aware that extending the nine months is impossible, and they hope to shorten that time in order to preserve the peace process, but Israel wants to create new facts on the ground.
This means that an Israeli ministerial committee presented a plan to annex 29 percent of the West Bank (the Jordan Valley), some 1,286 miles (2,070 kilometers), and this motion was approved by a ministerial committee. This cannot happen without Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is evidence that the government of Israel wants to destroy the peace process.
Q: What alternatives can you pursue?
Three issues require follow-up now. First, I think that the Palestinian National Authority must sign and join the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 as well as the Additional Protocol of 1977. By doing so, Palestine, whose capital is Jerusalem, becomes a state formally under occupation, a contracted, sovereign state. It is our right to sign the Rome Statute as well in order to implement the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Whoever fears the ICC must stop the crimes they are committing. Second, the countries of the world should follow the example of the European Union, which, starting on January 1 of this year, has begun a project to eliminate the quagmire of the Israeli settlement project by refusing to cooperate with settlements and the occupation in all of its forms. Third, the EU and others who do not recognize the state of Palestine must do so if the world hopes to preserve the two countries.
Q: Regarding the settlement issue, Israelis say that it is being dealt with in exchange for prisoner releases, but has this been agreed upon?
This is a lie. This goes back to Kerry’s remarks in Bethlehem on November 6 of last year after meeting with President Abbas. He told the world that prisoner releases were taking place in exchange for the Palestinian Authority not approaching the UN for arbitration. This is true. We refrained from going to the UN and other international institutions to demand the release of 104 prisoners. Netanyahu claims prisoners are released in exchange for settlement blocs and all of that, but this is further evidence of his unrivaled efforts to derail the peace process and negate Kerry’s actions. I say that the Israeli government alone bears the failure of the peace process. There is no relationship between the prisoners and negotiations, only to our refraining from approaching international institutions. We have paid a hefty price for this but it is worth it because people who respect themselves become embroiled in wars only for the sake of releasing their sons.
Q: Is this agreement for nine months only? I mean, is it valid for just a limited amount of time?
Just nine months. It is an agreement outside the framework of negotiations.
Q: On the topic of the nine-months limit, if a convincing argument arose, do you think Kerry would approve an extension for the negotiations?
I do not think so. We do not need to extend the negotiation period. The issues are clear and specific: a state on the ’67 borders and Israeli withdrawal.
Q: But do you really expect Israel to withdraw when it refuses to leave the Jordan Valley?
We want a gradual withdrawal like what happened in the Sinai. It won’t happen in one day—we know that it needs to happen within a timeframe.
Q: What is the maximum acceptable amount of time for withdrawal?
I’ll return to my example: the Sinai. Withdrawal in that case took three years, which means it is possible that we need two to three years. Abu Mazen will be the one to decide. After that, it will not be permitted for even one Israeli soldier to remain.
Q: Have you discussed a gradual withdrawal in the context of a security plan presented by Kerry?
Kerry did not present any concrete plans, he only tested the waters on various ideas.
Q: Nothing political or security-related?
No…long-term commitments must have a signed agreement as their foundation…we’ve already signed, so why does a plan matter?
Q: But in any long-term commitment, one would want to know the expectations and designs going forward.
What has been declared will operate as the foundation. Kerry can say what he wants, but when the time comes to present a plan, it must be in written form. It has not yet been presented and I doubt it will be soon.
Q: Concerning these ideas, is it true that Israeli troops will remain in the Jordan Valley?
I can’t go into detail, as this discussion took place between Abu Mazen and Kerry.
Q: You participated in approximately 20 meetings, correct?
Q: And did you come to any points of agreement?
We did not reach an agreement. We put forth our positions, and we were not indirect at all. Honestly, however, the gap between parties has widened with each session.
Q: And now you’ve resigned?
Q: Have you met with Israeli negotiators following the resignation?
My resignation has not gone into effect. It is sitting before the President [Abbas].
Q: He is yet to approve it?
I am insistent upon resigning, but according to procedure, I cannot leave the Negotiations Affairs Department without a replacement. However, there are qualified candidates prepared to take my place.
I did meet with Israelis. I met with Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Minister of Justice, in Washington, on the sidelines of the Saban Conference. We both met jointly with Kerry, and then again regarding prisoner issues. However there have been no formal negotiations between the two sides since November 5 of last year.
Q: You say you are insistent on resigning. What if the President asks you to continue?
The resignation sits before him and I implore him to accept.
Q: And if he doesn’t accept it?
God willing, he’ll accept it.
Q: The President [Abbas] says that you are the ‘memory of negotiations.’
Our people are talented individuals and there is no one in this world that we cannot do without; De Gaulle met protests when he tried to resign. They said to him: ‘How can you resign?’ He went to the window of his office and told the crowds: ‘Look, over there is a cemetery. We thought we could not do without many of the people buried there. There is no one on this earth that we cannot do without.’ The Palestinian people are a capable people, and many individuals are more talented than me. The negotiator is not a decision-maker, nor should he be.
Q: However, you’re at the center of decision-making as a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO and as a member of the Fatah Central Committee?
Yes, but as a negotiator I’m not the decision maker. I take instructions.
Q: Before the start of the current negotiations, you said that everyone must start from where they left off with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Have the Israelis responded to this?
I do not want to go into details. This is what we have undertaken. However I will tell you that the issues are clear and the specific topics include Jerusalem, settlements, security, water, prisoners, borders, refugees, and the reference point for two states on 1967 borders. That’s what we were talking about.
Q: At what stage were the negotiations with Olmert when they stopped?
These negotiations stopped at the end of 2008. Olmert presented a map of 100 percent of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem to the president and increased it by 12 miles (20 kilometers). This is a fact.
Q: In exchange for what?
This had not been discussed. We did not reject the offer and the talks were ongoing. The President said to Olmert: ‘If you recognize the state along ’67 borders, we are ready for the 1.9 percent land exchange.’ Olmert said: ‘I want 6.5 percent.’ Then negotiations stopped with the fall of Olmert.
Q: Could you go into more detail about the land swap? Does it include settlements on Palestinian lands?
We have not talked about specific areas. We laid down the precept that if they recognize us, we will revisit the subject. But you cannot talk about the principle of exchange without acknowledging the sovereignty of the state of Palestine…It takes place through an agreement between two sovereign states, and without recognition, we cannot talk about land exchanges. Our position is that, in the event that we are recognized as a state with full sovereignty, by Israel and others, we will return to talks.
Q: But in Israel, there are plans to combine four large settlement blocs in the West Bank. Do you agree with that?
I cannot control what Israelis say. However, it must be clear that settlements in all shapes and sizes are null, void, illegitimate, and in violation of international law. Settlements amount to a war crime.
Q: New housing units, totaling 1,400, are expected to be built, correct?
If Netanyahu approved of 1,400 new units, it would have been announced July 29 last year. Since the beginning of negotiations 7,392 housing units have been approved, representing three times the natural growth rate of New York City. This is what prompts me to say that Netanyahu threw a wrench in negotiations.
Q: You support approaching international organizations to secure recognition of a Palestinian state. Why? How will you benefit from this while still under occupation?
[Smiling.] After November 29, 2012, when the State of Palestine was recognized with full membership in the UN, things are not as they were before. Palestine’s accession to the Fourth Geneva Convention makes it a state under occupation whose capital is Jerusalem. The situation is similar to Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Korea, and the Philippines which were under German and Japanese occupation during World War II. Thus, if these covenants were embraced, and with Palestine recognized as a sovereign state, any settlement project would become a war crime, which would result in consequences. The issue is in the sequencing. There are 63 international institutions that we will join, and Israel is wary of ICC prosecution regarding war crimes.
Q: Is this your strategy from now on?
As we have established a strategy, so has Netanyahu. He is working across three axes: first, he wants the Palestinian Authority to operate devoid of power. Second, he wants to maintain the occupation without paying for it. Third, he wants to push Gaza further away from the Palestinian question and keep the situation there as it is. We maintain that the Palestinian Authority was created in order make Palestinians independent of the occupation, and it will not cease to function until it achieves this end. If Netanyahu thinks he will transform the Palestinian Authority into a group that cooperates with Israel on financial and security issues, he is mistaken. The Palestinian Authority’s mission is to bring the Palestinian people to independence.
Q: Are you suggesting the Palestinian Authority be dissolved?
Q: Are there people who call for this?
I authored a study two and a half years ago and submitted it to the leadership. I said that the Palestinian Authority was created in order to bring independence to the Palestinian people, and Netanyahu is trying to alter that function of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority will not be able to withstand this and will collapse. I do not want to dissolve the Palestinian Authority as this is not a solution, but it will collapse in this manner. We must study the recent General Assembly resolution. We have alternatives. The Executive Committee is the provisional government of the State of Palestine, which should organize future elections for parliament and establish the State of Palestine itself. We must consecrate this state, but this requires reconciliation before any other process. Hamas is demanding it return to its past position, an immediate return to the will of the people by way of presidential elections, legislation, and the Palestinian National Council. When we disagree, we go back to the ballot box, not bullets.
Second, we went to international organizations, and this is our answer to Netanyahu’s strategy. Third, we must strengthen the spine of the Arab world, as we have not supported the Arabs as we should have. Fourth, our international coordination has reached unprecedented levels, and the whole world is aware that defeating extremism requires ridding ourselves of the quagmire of the occupation.
The other matter essential to our strategy involves building the institutions of a Palestinian state. The nation already exists geographically and the state will be accountable, open, and democratic, free for all its people and all religions. This is Palestine and Palestine’s message.
Q: Some believe that the two-state solution is not only difficult and distant, but that it is dead. Do you advocate for the adoption of the one-state solution?
There is no solution called the one-state solution. The solution requires the consent of both parties, and Israel will not agree at all. The reality is that a single state exists, but what Netanyahu strives for is one country under two legal systems.
Q: What is the difference? Could you explain?
We are looking to establish two independent states, but Netanyahu, by way of continuing settlement activity, murder, raids and political hegemony, seeks to build one country under two systems, i.e., apartheid, nothing less. There are now ways to disinherit Palestinians from their own territories, something that did not even occur under apartheid in South Africa when they prohibited blacks from using roads designated for whites. This system of apartheid is worse and runs deeper than that of South Africa. They want a State of Israel stretching from the river [Jordan] to the sea, and they want an Arab minority that has its own institutions, schools, universities, and parliament. However the upper hand, meaning supreme control of the land, air, and all crossings, lies with Israel. This is what I meant by a state with two systems, just as South Africa was a state with two systems.
Q: Are we to understand that you are leaving, then?
My resignation is pending, and I hope that it is accepted. I am in charge of this matter and I do not want to say more than that. The issue is not one of personality; I was not born expecting to be a Palestinian soldier; nothing that I undertake can be compared to the sacrifices of the martyrs. Woe to the nation whose leader feels as though he is more important than the national cause. I am a soldier and life goes on. The Palestinian people have the skills to advance this issue more than I alone can.
This is an abridged version of the original interview, which was originally conducted in Arabic.