Other than Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat could be the most recognizable Palestinian on the planet. The chief Palestinian negotiator is certainly among the most passionate in promoting the cause. And nobody on the Palestinian side knows the substance of the issues or the negotiating history better.
I first met Erekat in the late 1980s, while working on the Palestinian issue for then Secretary of State George Shultz. Back then, the U.S.-educated diplomat was already showing the brashness and outspokenness that would make him one of the most memorable -- if exasperating -- of the Palestinians with whom we dealt.
He annoyed then Secretary of State James Baker by wearing his kaffiyeh around his shoulders at the opening of the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991. And over the years, he continued to annoy the Israelis too with his fiery performances on CNN -- though to this day, key Israeli negotiators, such as Isaac Molho, continue to praise his pragmatism at the bargaining table.
It was Erekat's academic bent, analytical chops, and capacity to write in English that would make him so indispensable to the only Palestinian who really counted in those days -- Yasir Arafat. Erekat was a unique figure -- neither a fighter (no nom de guerre for him), nor a PLO insider, nor an organization man from Tunis. Rather, he was a West Banker from Jericho, and he succeeded in maintaining his relevance in a Palestinian political scene dominated not by fellow academics, but by hard men defined by struggle and intrigue. During the heady days of the peace process, he became a key point of contact for the Americans, the Israelis, the Arabs, and much of the rest of the international community.
I came to know Erekat not only as a negotiator, but as a person. He sent his kids to Seeds of Peace, a conflict resolution and coexistence organization that I ran briefly after leaving the State Department, and my daughter befriended his and stayed with the Erekats in Jericho. Saeb and I have yelled at each other, defended our respective positions, laughed, and mourned opportunities that were never adequately explored. But through it all, what he said about himself was true: He wasn't as pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli as much as he was pro-peace.
That peace has proven elusive to this day. But with all our differences -- and there are many -- I believe Erekat believes in its possibility. Who else would list as an "objective" on his resume: "Solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two state negotiated solution through diplomatic offices"?
If, or perhaps when, another effort to negotiate a deal is made, one thing is clear -- Erekat will be in the middle of it. Last week, he agreed to answer my questions on the past and future of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
FP: What were your best and worst moments in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and what was the greatest missed opportunity?
Saeb Erekat: Though I was not the chief negotiator at that moment, the connection between [then Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin and President Arafat made everyone around them, including myself, feel that peace was possible. There was significant progress in all tracks until Rabin's assassination by an Israeli terrorist -- after he was killed, no Israeli leader had the vision to understand that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution would close as fast as they continued their colonization policies.
The missed opportunity has definitely been Israel throwing away the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers normalization of relations of 57 countries with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border. They threw it away by bombing Gaza, by intensifying collective punishments, and by increasing settlement construction all over the occupied West Bank, particularly in and around Occupied East Jerusalem.
FP: 2013 is the 20th anniversary of the Oslo negotiations. What was Oslo's greatest success, and its greatest failure?
SE: The fact that, two decades after Oslo, we are still a nation under occupation shows that Israeli governments did derail it. The interim accords were not supposed to last for 20 years but only five. After that, we were going to enjoy freedom and sovereignty.
But Israel increased its settlement expansion. In fact, within 20 years, the number of settlers almost tripled. The institution-building efforts led by the Palestinian government have been completely undermined by the lack of freedom. This situation cannot continue. Oslo succeeded in bringing back 250,000 Palestinians from the diaspora and building the capacity for our state. The international community failed though, by granting Israel an unprecedented culture of impunity that allowed them to use negotiations as a means to continue rather than stop colonization.