Trump’s Mideast envoy calls for top Palestinian negotiator’s ouster

After Saeb Erekat pens a scathing op-ed accusing US of being Israel’s ‘partner in occupation,’ Jason Greenblatt says time has come for ‘other Palestinian perspectives’

US special envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) attends the launch of a project to improve access to wastewater treatment and water for Palestinian farmers, on October 15, 2017, in the West Bank city of Jericho. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)
US special envoy Jason Greenblatt (L) attends the launch of a project to improve access to wastewater treatment and water for Palestinian farmers, on October 15, 2017, in the West Bank city of Jericho. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s envoy in charge of jumpstarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks called on Sunday for the ousting of the Palestinian Authority’s longtime chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, accusing him of exacerbating the conflict and impeding progress toward peace after the latter attacked Washington over its peacemaking role.

“We have heard your voice for decades and it has not achieved anything close to Palestinian aspirations or anything close to a comprehensive peace agreement,” wrote Jason Greenblatt, addressing Erekat directly, in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “Other Palestinian perspectives might help us finally achieve a comprehensive peace agreement where Palestinian and Israeli lives can be better.”

Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, did not specify whom he would rather see in the longtime diplomat’s prominent position.

In his op-ed, Greenblatt was responding to a scathing op-ed Erekat penned for the same newspaper last month, in which he lamented US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Erekat also castigated the White House for what he characterized as its complicity in Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.

He derided the close relationship between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and contemptuously noted the smiling presence of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump at the Jerusalem embassy’s opening just as deadly violence was unfolding at the Gaza border. The column was titled, “Partners in occupation: Trump provides the anti-Palestinian incitement, Israel the bullets.”

For more than 30 years, Erekat has been one of the highest-ranking Palestinian officials, frequently leading negotiating efforts with Israel and the United States, going back to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference brokered by former US president George H.W. Bush.

Most recently, he led the Palestinians in former US secretary of state John Kerry’s efforts to solidify an accord, negotiating with his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni.

Erekat is very close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, whose health has long been questioned. The prospect of Abbas’s death or removal from power has led many Middle East analysts to worry who might replace him, and how that would change the character of the PA.

PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat in his Ramallah office, November 23, 2015. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

Over the last two months, tens of thousands of Gazans have been undertaking weekly “March of Return” protests at the border. Some rioters tried to damage and break the security fence to infiltrate Israel, while others have attacked soldiers with Molotov cocktails, bombs, rocks and burning tires.

Those clashes reached their most intense level on the day of the embassy opening on May 14, when Israeli forces killed more than 60 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry — the vast majority of whom were members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups.

Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules the Strip, seized control of the demonstrations early on and began orchestrating them.

Erekat’s initial op-ed — to which Greenblatt was responding — came several days after that conflagration.

In his Haaretz piece on Saturday, Greeblatt said that Erekat’s column included claims that were “in many respects simply inaccurate.” He did not go into much detail, other than the Palestinian official’s contention that the embassy move was “part of a US attempt to force an Israeli-written agreement on the Palestinians.”

Greenblatt disputed that characterization. He quoted from Trump’s speech formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December, in which the president said that, despite the relocation of the diplomatic mission, “the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties.”

Widely welcomed in Israel, Trump’s move was highly controversial, eliciting criticism from much of the international community, as well as former US peace negotiators who argued it would inflame tensions in the region and further compromise America’s capacity to act as a useful-but-flawed broker in peace talks.

Since that decision, Abbas has refused to meet with Trump officials and has said the US can no longer act as an honest mediator in negations between the sides.

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