InterviewWorld sees that PM 'using coronavirus,' negotiator claims

Top PLO official urges world action, not words, to block West Bank annexation

While thanking countries for not forsaking Palestinians amid pandemic, Saeb Erekat says Netanyahu ‘can survive statements of condemnation’ but must hear ‘consequences’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat speaks at the J Street National Conference, in Washington, October 28, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Saeb Erekat speaks at the J Street National Conference, in Washington, October 28, 2019. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The senior Palestinian official leading Ramallah’s diplomatic effort to thwart Israel’s annexation plans is calling on world leaders to go beyond rebuke and demonstrate to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that there will be real-world repercussions if he moves forward with the measure.

“What we’re telling them is that Netanyahu can survive statements of condemnation, but he needs to hear that there will be backlash and consequences as well,” said Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee.

Erekat, the close confidant to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, spoke with The Times of Israel against the backdrop of this month’s coalition agreement between Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, which allows the premier to begin advancing legislation to annex large parts of the West Bank starting July 1.

During the fiery interview, Erekat accused Netanyahu of “seeking to destroy every Palestinian moderate” and warned that annexation would doom the PA, but admitted that no world leaders have revealed what concrete steps they plan to take against Jerusalem if it goes through with Articles 28 and 29 of the coalition deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho is at left, and PA security chief Majed Faraj is at second left. (Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)

“We are trying our best, contacting everyone and telling them that if Israel goes ahead with its annexation plans, this will mean that Palestinians and Israelis will never reach a negotiated settlement,” said Erekat, who also heads the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department and has represented Ramallah in many previous rounds of peace talks with Israel.

He also lauded world leaders for taking time to address the issue in the midst of coping with the coronavirus pandemic and asserted that just about all of them — save for the US — “are utterly against annexation.”

Separately on Thursday, Arab League foreign ministers convened an emergency meeting and signed a resolution declaring such an Israeli move a “war crime.”

Amman’s upset, Washington’s not itself

While he was vague about just every other country, Erekat said that Jordan is “particularly upset” about the looming annexation measure. “What I heard from the king of Jordan personally and the foreign minister is that this will jeopardize Jordan’s national security,” he said.

Without identifying anyone else, Erekat claimed that leaders he had spoken to had told him they believed Netanyahu was “using the coronavirus” as cover for the move, hoping that opponents would be too preoccupied with the public health crisis to expend political capital in responding.

Jordanian King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting in Amman on December 18, 2018. (Credit: Wafa)

“The question that we put to [world leaders] was: Say [Netanyahu] does [annex], what happens the day after? Is it business as usual? Are you going to reward him and tell Palestinians to swallow it and be realistic and pragmatic?” he said.

Thus far, governments around the world have indeed reacted, though not with concrete threats. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week that “any annexation would constitute a serious violation of international law.” Germany, France, China, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Norway made similar statements, but none of them specified what actions their countries would take were Netanyahu to follow through with his preelection pledge.

As for the US — with which Ramallah has all but severed ties since Washington’s 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — Erekat asserted that its recent nods toward West Bank annexation do not represent historic American policy on the matter.

“This is not who the US is,” he said.

The PA has flatly rejected the Trump administration’s peace plan, which envisions Israel annexing all settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley under a “realistic” two-state solution that would see the Palestinians receive a semi-contiguous, semi-autonomous state on roughly 70 percent of the West Bank.

Asked if he’d been in touch with anyone from the presidential campaign of Democrat Joe Biden, whom many Palestinians view as a last hope, Erekat said he didn’t want to meddle in “internal [American] issues,” while noting that he’d contacted senior Democrats, whose party “unanimously” opposes annexation “along with many Republicans.”

“I’ve known Biden personally for 30 years,” he said. “I’ve seen his statements, heard his speeches and TV interviews. The man is consistent in support of two states and against annexation. I hope [that] he’ll act.”

File: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh (right) and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molho (left) at the formal resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, in the Oval Office, July 30, 2013. (Official White House Photo, Chuck Kennedy)

On Tuesday, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, declared that the presumptive Democratic nominee indeed opposes annexation and would aim to revive and “ultimately advance” the two-state solution as president.

However, Blinken said Biden was “not going to prejudge what we might do or not do in the context of a Biden administration” since much could change before then. He also said Biden would keep the US embassy in Jerusalem, rather than reverse President Donald Trump’s decision to move the mission from Tel Aviv.

‘This is what we get for supporting negotiations’

Erekat saved his harshest words during the interview for Netanyahu, whom he claimed “wants to destroy every Palestinian moderate and those who believe in peace, negotiations and nonviolence.”

“We were the Palestinians who recognized Israel and negotiated with Israel and all we’ve ended up with is an annexation map, a settlements map and a map of east, west, north and south Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” he continued.

The Israel-backed Trump administration plan envisions Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital” while areas on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, east and north of the West Bank security barrier, are earmarked as a potential capital for the future Palestinian state.

“This man (Netanyahu) believes that for the future of Israel, it’s not peace that is needed but conflict. Even when he speaks about Arab alliances, he speaks in the context of fighting other nations like Iran,” Erekat fumed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a map of the Jordan Valley, vowing to extend Israeli sovereignty there if reelected, during a speech in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“He’s the author of the chapter on how not to reach an agreement in the book on negotiations,” Erekat charged.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request to comment on the claims made against Netanyahu.

Erekat added that Ramallah had informed both Gantz’s and Netanyahu’s advisers that there would be “backlash” if Jerusalem moves forward with declaring sovereignty over the West Bank.

If Netanyahu advances the plans regardless, “he’ll have declared the cancellation of agreements signed and that he wants to destroy the PA,” Erekat claimed, echoing statements made last week by Abbas.

“He will end up shouldering responsibility [for all people] from the [Jordan] river to [Mediterranean] sea… where Palestinians are the majority” he said.

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