Erekat pleads with Arab states: Do not undermine Palestinian cause for your gain

Senior Ramallah official tells ToI economic workshop in Bahrain will be an ’embarrassment’ for Kushner, but admits White House has rendered him less relevant in eyes of his people

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat at a press conference following an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, August 11, 2014 (AP/Amr Nabil)
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat at a press conference following an emergency meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, August 11, 2014 (AP/Amr Nabil)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A top Palestinian official is urging Arab states that have decided to participate in the US-led economic workshop in Bahrain later this month against advancing their own interests at the expense of the Palestinian cause.

Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, made the plea in a wide-ranging interview with The Times of Israel at his Ramallah office on Sunday.

Erekat, a close confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a Fatah Central Committee member, said that when Arab states “exchange interests” with Washington, they should “pay from [their] pocket — not mine.”

American officials have said that the June 25-26 summit will deal with the economic portion of its apparently forthcoming plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinians have firmly rejected participating in the conference; Abbas has said the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership will not accept its results and demanded that any peace effort begin with political rather than economic matters.

Four Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and host-country Bahrain — have all stated that they will be participating in the conference. The US said Tuesday that Jordan, Egypt and Morocco had also confirmed their attendance.

Arab Foreign Ministers meet at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, November 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Asked whether the Arab participation constituted a major disappointment for the Palestinians, Erekat said that “these countries have their interests,” including those related to Iran. He was appearing to suggest that some Middle East neighbors are willing to play along with Washington’s agenda on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if it will allow for a more united front in curbing Tehran’s regional ambitions.

Erekat specifically said the Palestinians had informed Bahrain of their disapproval of Manama’s decision to host the economic workshop. “We told them, ‘Why should you host this conference when we are not there? That’s not your right.'”

Abbas and other Palestinians officials met Abdullah bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, an envoy of Bahraini King Hamad bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, in late May in Amman.

Erekat made clear that the Palestinian leadership had communicated to Arab states attending the workshop that it did not give them a mandate to negotiate on its behalf.

Nevertheless, he predicted that Jared Kushner, a key architect of the American peace plan, will not be pleased with the public statements Arab delegations will make at the summit.

“This conference in Manama will be the biggest setback and embarrassment for Kushner,” Erekat said, “because I know that no Arab will [attend] without saying: ‘Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital living side by side with Israel on the 1967 borders.’”

Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, speaks at his office in Ramallah on June 9, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Erekat revealed that Ramallah has been working to get dozens of countries around the world to sign documents pledging that they will only support such a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in addition to vowing not to follow the US in moving their embassies to Jerusalem.

He claimed to have received such pledges in writing from Canada, Japan, China, Russia as well as all states in the European Union, African Union and Arab League.

But when it has come to the task of convincing governments to take the next step and recognize Palestine, Erekat admitted to having a harder time, even with European states. “They give me answers I don’t want to hear,” he said.

While US President Donald Trump has said he thinks the two-state solution “works best,” Kushner and other White House officials have avoided endorsing that traditional format, appearing to suggest that the brewing peace plan will offer the Palestinians something less than full sovereignty.

Erekat also took aim at Washington’s broader policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that these had disincentivized Israel from negotiating with the Palestinians.

“Why should any Israeli talk to me now? Why should any Israeli want to negotiate with me now, if they have the Kushners, the Greenblatts, and the Trumps? Why should they talk to me when somebody else will do the job for them?” he asked.

US President Donald Trump, left, turns to give a pen to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019 after signing the official proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.. From left, White House adviser Jared Kushner, US special envoy Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Israeli Ambassador to the U S Ron Dermer, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (AP/Susan Walsh)

Since taking office in early 2017, the Trump administration has taken a number of measures that have won plaudits from Israeli officials while infuriating their Palestinian counterparts, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the US embassy in the Jewish state to the city, cutting funding to the United Nations organization that provides aid to Palestinian refugees and closing the PLO representative office in Washington, D.C.

Demonstrating how the Trump administration has slowly made his “Palestinian peace camp” less relevant, Erekat pointed out two “schools” that have been gaining momentum among his compatriots in recent years: one that has given up on the possibility of a Palestinian state and is willing to accept a single state so long as Palestinians have full rights, and a second camp that still believes a Palestinian state is possible but will require an armed struggle.

Those two camps include members who have become some of Erekat’s fiercest critics, particularly on issues such as the PA’s security cooperation with Israel.

Nevertheless, “It’s going on,” he said, appearing to downplay threats by PA and PLO officials to cut the partnership, which Israeli security officials have credited with saving countless lives. “People are criticizing the hell out of us on the hour, every hour. People are calling me a traitor for saying this.”

While Erekat asserted that he would never walk back his own opposition to violence as a means of achieving statehood, he admitted that “there are changes happening” in the PLO and his Fatah party.

He insisted that Netanyahu and the Trump administration would “go down in history” as having exacerbated those trends.

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