Palestinians might go to UN for statehood this month, Erekat tells Times of Israel

By 2018, Jews will be a minority between the Jordan and the sea, says chief Palestinian negotiator. What will Israel do then? ‘It’s around the corner’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

The Palestinians might seek the status of a nonmember state at the United Nations as early as this month if the prospect of a peace agreement with Israel remains elusive, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said recently.

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Erekat said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was currently mulling whether to meet Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, but he emphasized that he does not believe tangible progress would result from any such encounter, suggesting the Kadima chairman had no authority to make important decisions not sanctioned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“If I can’t achieve peace 20 years after the signing of an agreement and negotiations, the least I can do is preserve a Palestinian state with its borders at the UN,” Erekat said in the interview. “That’s the only legitimate thing for me to do.”

Abbas last year applied for UN membership, but the United States made clear it would veto the move in the Security Council. However, the Palestinians, who currently have observer status at the UN, could secure a resolution at the General Assembly that would grant them the status of a nonmember state, similar to the Vatican. Under such a resolution, Palestine would be considered a “state under occupation,” according to Erekat.

While Palestine would not have a vote in the General Assembly, it could join the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court.

‘Why would any Israeli who claims to accept the two-state solution not vote for it?’

“I don’t know why the Israelis are against this move,” Erekat said in the interview Friday, sitting in the PLO’s negotiations office in his hometown of Jericho, in the West Bank. “Why couldn’t they stand tall in the UN and say Israel will be the first nation to vote for the nation of Palestine, because we are for the two-state solution? Especially when the Palestinians are going to put [forward] a resolution [calling for] ‘a state of Palestine with ’67 lines and East Jerusalem as its capital, to live side by side in peace and security with the State of Israel.’

“Why would any Israeli who claims to accept the two-state solution not vote for it?”

Not much hope for Abbas-Mofaz meet

Erekat, who is traveling to Washington, DC, this week to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that Abbas’s office is currently “studying” an offer to meet Mofaz. On Sunday, a spokesman for Abbas said a meeting between the two would not take place until next month at the earliest.

Last week, the Kadima chairman had called on Abbas to “put aside the dispatches, put aside the letters,” and restart negotiations without preconditions. The centrist party entered Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition in May amid hopes to revitalize the stalled peace process. After the last Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down earlier this year without any results, Abbas refused to meet Netanyahu unless he stopped settlement construction, recognized the principle of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines and released Palestinian prisoners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Saeb Erekat (second from right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 2012. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Erekat does not pin many hopes on a meeting between Abbas and Israel’s vice prime minister, slamming the latter for not protesting when the prime minister pledged to expand settlements.

“Two weeks after [Mofaz] joined the government Mr. Netanyahu said: ‘I’m a government for the settlers and by the settlers.’ Is Mofaz deaf or did he hear this,” Erekat asked. “Was he part of this decision or not? Or does he want to come and say Saeb Erekat has a neon sign on his forehead that says ‘Stupid’?”

After Netanyahu’s cabinet agreed to dismantle five buildings of Beit El’s Ulpana neighborhood built on private Palestinian land, the prime minister vowed to expand the West Bank city, located north of Ramallah. The 30 families currently living in Ulpana would be moved to another part of Beit El and joined by 300 new families, Netanyahu said, adding that there “is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government.”

Erekat said that regardless of Mofaz’s intentions, it’s Netanyahu who calls the shots.

“In Israel, you negotiate with the prime minister. You don’t negotiate with Shas, Yisrael Beytenu or whoever else is in the government. There is a prime minister called Benjamin Netanyahu. We respect the democratic choice of the Israelis. He has a chief negotiator called Yitzhak Molcho, that’s who I deal with. We don’t deal with others separately.”

Erekat, who is also a member of the PLO’s executive committee, said that he is in regular contact with Molcho but declined to detail what they are speaking about. He did say, however, that at this stage he is waiting to hear from Molcho, indicating that he expects Israel to increase its efforts to restart talks.

“I’m not going to disappear,” Erekat, 57, said, referring to what some Israelis call the demographic threat: the prospects of Jews becoming a minority in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea if the two sides fail to agree on two states for two nations. “Every Israeli must know that today, those who are being born from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean in non-Jewish households are the majority on this land when they enter first grade. What are you going to do with me? I’m not talking about 2050 or 2070, I’m talking about 2018. It’s around the corner.”

Erekat, a father of four and grandfather, painted a grim picture of the future if the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock persists, harshly attacking the current Israeli government, military and settler movement.

He held the interview in his Jericho office on Friday afternoon, as Jericho residents were leaving their mosques after Friday prayers.

While Erekat, who holds a PhD in peace and conflict studies from Bradford University in the UK, said a two-state solution will always remain an option — and is, indeed, the only option — to end the conflict, he sounded despairing about the current state of affairs. “The PA was born to take Palestinians from occupation to independence. Now the game of Mr. Netanyahu is trying to change that function toward an authority that can pay salaries and cooperate on security,” Erekat said. “If he thinks he can do this, he’s mistaken.”

‘If I don’t deliver a peace treaty with Israel I will disappear. I don’t need to be thrown out of my office. That point is coming’

Like Abbas, who time and again expresses resignation with the stalled peace process, going as far as saying the Palestinian Authority has “lost its raison d’être,” or this week, that the peace process is “clinically dead,” Erekat was plainly trying to sound the alarm. While he stopped short of explicitly threatening to dismantle the PA, he said he personally might choose to “disappear” rather than continue his unsuccessful struggle for Palestinian statehood.

“If I don’t deliver, I’m doomed. People ask why Hamas won the elections. I could not deliver. And if I don’t deliver, I will disappear. So I better disappear with decency,” he said. “If I don’t deliver a peace treaty with Israel I will disappear, so I disappear voluntarily. I don’t need to be thrown out of my office. I don’t need to wait for that point. It’s coming.”

“I think a moment should come for us to tell our people the truth: We tried for 20 years [yet] we don’t have a partner in Israel,” he said, referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which established the PA and were meant to lead to a permanent agreement.

In 2008, the Ehud Olmert government presented a peace proposal that would establish a Palestinian state on 93.5 percent of the West Bank, with the government swapping the missing 6.5 percent with land inside the Green Line, Erekat said. But Abbas was only willing to forgo 1.9 percent of the West Bank, and Olmert — whom Erekat called a “man of decency” — was forced to leave office due to corruption allegations before a compromise could be worked out, he said.

Erekat was reluctant to give a yes-or-no answer when asked whether the Palestinians would sign a treaty based on Olmert’s 2008 proposal if Netanyahu offered it now, merely saying that such an overture “would be good news.”

“The minute he will give you an interview saying I accept two states on ’67 [lines], he’s serious,” Erekat said. “But without these words, what are we talking about? He wants a Palestinian state? In which borders?”

In principle, the PA accepts a demilitarized Palestinian state in borders based on the 1967 lines, with “minor mutually agreed swaps”; a “just and agreed solution” to the refugee question and East Jerusalem as capital, Erekat said.

‘I’m ashamed as a Palestinian to have this happen during my time. It’s shameful’

However, borders, refugees and Jerusalem are not the only points of contention between the Netanyahu government and the PA. Another obstacle to peace could be the inner Palestinian schism. While Netanyahu has criticized attempts to reconcile Abbas’s Fatah movement with Hamas — which openly calls for Israel’s destruction — saying that Abbas needs to choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas, Erekat considers such a development positive and crucial.

“I don’t think we can achieve peace or a two-state solution without reconciliation between us and Hamas,” said Erekat, who is a member of Fatah’s central committee.

The disunity of the Palestinian people is one issue for which Erekat accepts blame on behalf of the PA. “I’m not saying that we don’t commit mistakes. For God’s sake, we’re a very young authority. We’re crawling,” he said about the bitter and occasionally violent clashes between the rival factions, adding that he feels the Palestinians people are frustrated about the status quo. “I’m ashamed as a Palestinian to have this happen during my time. It’s shameful.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in February (photo credit: Mohammed al-Hums/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in February (photo credit: Mohammed al-Hums/Flash90)

The key to reconciliation is new presidential and legislative elections, he said. “Hamas is a Palestinian political party and what we’re trying to do now with Hamas is tell them: if we have differences we don’t resort to bullets but to ballots.”

Erekat described himself as a big believer in democracy, and thus said he sees the Arab Spring not only as the “most important development in the last 1,000 years of Arab history” but also as crucial for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We cannot separate between peace here between us and the Israelis and what’s happening in the region. This region needs to be delivered out of the hands of extremists,” he said. “You don’t fight extremists with guns and marines. You don’t fight ideas with bullets. You need two things to defeat these forces: One is democracy. And anyone who says Arabs aren’t ready for democracy is a racist. And secondly: peace, based on the two-state solution. One cannot go without the other.”

Erekat said he is irritated by Western diplomats who visit Cairo and meet with the Muslim Brotherhood only to ask them if they intend on keeping the peace treaty with Israel. “That’s not fair. They should allow democracy to prosper. They should allow leaders to be accountable, to be transparent. Democracies don’t wage wars.”

Netanyahu’s statements condemning the Arab Spring as an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave” failed to see the inherent long-term benefits a democratization movement could mean for the region, according to Erekat.

“No one should fear democracy,” he said. “That’s shortsightedness. These changes in the Arab world will serve us all. All of us should ask ourselves one question: What do we do to make the right people win?”

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