US Secretary of State John Kerry met on Friday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah for a talk that lasted several hours. On Saturday, Kerry was heading back for another round of talks with Abbas and his negotiating team, including chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
On Friday, the London-based A-Sharq Al-Awsat paper published an interview with Erekat that made waves due to Erekat’s claim that Israel murdered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and could do the same to Abbas. “This is the conduct of the Israelis,” said Erekat. “Before they killed [Yasser] Arafat by poisoning there were also voices from the [Ariel] Sharon government saying that Arafat is an obstacle and that he must be gotten rid of.” Independent French, and later Russian forensic experts have ruled out the possibility that the late Palestinian leader was poisoned.
The other comments made by Erekat in his interview — the ones about the ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians — were downplayed. But they are actually very important: Erekat’s statements demonstrate just how wide the gulf between the two sides is, and suggest that Washington’s chances of reaching a framework agreement are slim, perhaps even very slim.
First of all, Erekat stressed in the interview that the Palestinians will not agree to have talks extended beyond the allotted nine months, set to end in April. “Even a one-minute extension is impossible,” he was quoted as saying.
“Unlike what others say, the negotiations will be nine months long. The objective is to reach an agreement on all issues pertaining to a final-status deal. And according to the wording of the agreement with Kerry, there will be no transitional or interim agreements,” Erekat said.
Kerry made his way back to the region Thursday for another series of talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. This time, he was expected to present both sides with a framework deal touching on all core issues. But with April approaching fast and time running out, Erekat’s words reflect a growing impatience within the Palestinian Authority with what they see as Israeli attempts to prolong negotiations.
“The US administration understands that the talks can’t go on for nine months, and so it is trying to cut them short in order to safeguard the peace process and preempt the extension of negotiations,” Erekat said.
He added, however, that Israel was trying to thwart the peace process — and US efforts — in “every way,” with the latest example being an Israeli bill to annex the Jordan Valley, which passed a key ministerial committee last week.
Claiming that the last face-to-face talks with Israel’s negotiating team took place way back on November 5, Erekat presented a list of Israeli moves and “crimes” that he said undermined the peace process and led him to resign from the position of chief negotiator — a resignation that seems not to have taken effect.
Erekat said that since then, there have been no direct talks, only separate meetings between US officials and their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. Even these efforts did not bear fruit, he said, as Washington has yet to present the two sides with an official offer.
The top negotiator then revealed the contents of a letter Abbas had sent US President Barack Obama following a particularly fraught Abbas-Kerry meeting on December 8.
“In that letter, the president made clear what he would not be able to accept as a Palestinian, as a people, as the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization). Firstly, we will not be able to accept Israel as a Jewish state,” Abbas wrote, according to Erekat.
“Secondly, we will not be able to accept a Palestinian state with 1967 borders without Jerusalem. Thirdly, we will not be able to accept any Israeli on Palestinian land, sea, air and border crossings following the completion of the gradual withdrawal.”
A fourth precondition reportedly set by Abbas was the instatement of the so-called “right of return” for potentially millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel.
“I will not be able to accept any solution that does not grant the refugees their right to the possibility to return and be compensated as per UN Resolution 194, as well as one that does not allow for the release of prisoners,” Abbas reportedly wrote.
Erekat said Abbas presented these preconditions to the Arab League, which transferred them to UN Security Council member states. This is in keeping with Erekat’s preferred strategy for achieving Palestinian statehood – appealing to the European Union to recognize the Palestinian state while appealing to various international bodies to sign treaties and protocols that would enable the Palestinian Authority to file a suit against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.