The Peace Processor

An interview with Palestinian negotiator-in-chief Saeb Erekat.

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.

FP: What is the most important thing Israelis don't understand about Palestinians?

SE: That we are not going anywhere. As simple as that. We are not going to disappear just because their government builds an annexation wall around us.

They should close their eyes and imagine their state within 10 years time. What do they see? If they continue their policies, they are going to officially adopt the form of an apartheid regime, which I think is not what many Israelis want.

FP: What is the most important thing Palestinians have learned about Israelis? 

SE: That Israelis will not take back the ships that brought them here to leave somewhere else. We got to understand that we have to live side by side. The rules of engagement, though, cannot be those of apartheid, but those of freedom.

FP: What do you expect from the next Israeli government on the peace process?

SE: I don't think there is room for optimism, but our position hasn't changed. We don't see any other solution than a two-state solution. Any Israeli government that recognizes this fact and respects what previous governments have agreed upon should become a partner for peace.

FP: Is Hamas-Fatah unity possible, and what would the impact be on the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?

SE: We expect to have progress in the near future, with Hamas allowing the Central Elections Commission to register new voters in Gaza. I believe there is political agreement -- in fact, there is a signed agreement. We expect to have elections as soon as possible, which is the right way to solve our differences: Let our people decide, those in Palestine as well as our people in the Diaspora.

Having said so, Hamas has recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, including its mandate to negotiate a final status agreement with Israel. Once that is achieved, we expect to hold a national referendum.

FP: How would you describe Egypt's role in the peace process now? What do you expect from President Barack Obama's administration with regards to the peace process? 

SE: Egypt has played a central role, and continues to do so. We trust that Egypt, under President Mohamed Morsy's leadership, will continue to play a strong role because Palestine and Egypt have a common interest in achieving peace.

President Obama had stated that he has a personal commitment to bring peace to the Middle East. We, the Egyptians, and the rest of the Arab world tell him that we are ready for peace. We have the Arab Peace Initiative. This goes in line with the stated U.S. national interest. Washington's failure to explicitly say that Israel is to blame for choosing settlements over peace has contributed to Israel's culture of impunity.

FP: Can America be an effective broker in negotiations?

SE: If the U.S. decides to be an honest broker, it could not only be effective but in fact could bring real peace to the region, a just and lasting one. The U.S. has a moral obligation toward the Palestinian people, who have been under occupation and living in exile for decades.

FP: Is a two state solution still possible?

SE: Yes, but only if there is a political will. So far, Israel's will is about colonization, and the international community has failed to put an end to decades of double standards by treating Israel as a state above the law. We don't see any other solution than a two-state solution, though Israel is taking us to a one-state reality.


Reality Check

Second Time's the Charm?

Congratulations, John Kerry. You own the peace process now. Here's how not to screw it up.

The good thing about being a U.S. secretary of state in a president's second term is that you have a chance to learn from the mistakes of the first. And on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Barack Obama made some doozies.

Let's be clear. The president is not the reason Israelis and Palestinians did not join hands for peace at a triumphant Camp David summit. The dysfunctional local actors have to answer the mail on that one. But the president committed four stumble bumbles that made an already bad situation worse.

I'm betting that Secretary of State John Kerry -- reportedly very keen on the peace process -- won't make the same mistakes. He may indeed make others, but steering clear of these will at least give him a better start than his boss had last time round.

1. No special envoy

Beavers build dams, teenagers talk on the phone and text, and consequential secretaries of state take on the Arab-Israeli issue. They don't subcontract it out to former presidents, or would-be secretaries of state. (See: Bill Clinton, George Mitchell.)

Special envoys sow bureaucratic confusion and dilute the secretary's authority. And in the case of Mitchell, whom Obama appointed as his special envoy for Middle East peace and then never truly empowered, they confuse the Arabs and Israelis, providing opportunities for all kinds of mischief.

In the end, it's the secretary of state who sets up the deal -- and that person will become the natural repository of the confidence, anger, and trust of the Israelis and Palestinians. The secretary deploys the president when a breakthrough is needed, and of course positions him to close the deal at the crucial moment.

If the White House lets him, that will be John Kerry's responsibility. It shouldn't be delegated to an envoy.

2. No public fight on a settlements freeze

Obama made three mistakes on settlements: He pushed for a freeze that he could never deliver, failed to tie concessions from Israel to a serious strategy, and then backed down when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fought back, thereby undermining U.S. credibility with both sides.

Kerry is smarter than that. He understands how harmful settlements are, but won't push the Israelis into a corner or wage a public fight. He also stands to be luckier than Obama in his first term because, given the result of Israel's election, the next government in Jerusalem is likely to contain more centrist elements than its predecessor. That means it may well tone down the settlements push, and certainly will avoid radioactive projects like building in the E-1 area near Jerusalem.

Settlements will remain a problem, but Kerry is wise enough to understand that fighting the big fight on this issue is the key to an empty room. The issue needs to be part of a broader deal. I suspect the White House knows this now too.

3. Make a friend out of Bibi

Given the dysfunctional state of the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Kerry has an opportunity to do two things. First, if he's the administration's point man on the peace process, he needs to build a relationship with Bibi. He can't move anywhere without one.

And second, Kerry can serve as something of a buffer to ease the neuralgia between the two. As former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis said the other day in a session at the Wilson Center, during the talks that led up to the Camp David Accords, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance played a critical role in courting Menachem Begin, even while Carter and the prime minister never did all that much business together before the summit itself. That tie between Vance and Begin -- together with the secretary's relationship with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan -- really paved the way for the peace deal. There will be plenty of time for Kerry to fight with Netanyahu if he can't find a way to cooperate.

4. Don't be breathless

Perhaps for understandable reasons, Obama came charging out of the gate with no strategy and no coherent set of tactics, equipped only with big ideas and soaring rhetoric. Middle East envoy, challenge on settlements, new sheriff in town, and so forth. The lackluster results were predictable.

Kerry already has signaled his interest in moving the peace process forward -- and that's precisely why he should slow it down. A big early start with nothing in his pocket doesn't make any sense. Indeed, reports that he wanted to visit Israel as part of a regional tour -- perhaps even before the Israeli elections -- made no sense.

What's the point? Kerry should wait until the next Israeli coalition government is formed, and then see what terms will be necessary to get it back to the negotiating table. Don't crowd anyone or anybody now -- how many exploratory, fact-finding trips can a secretary of state make before Israelis and Palestinians start seeing him as an empty suit, part of the furniture?

Unless Kerry is carrying something special -- maybe a message from the president inviting the parties to conduct bilateral discussions in Washington, or plans for a presidential visit to Israel --he should take a deep breath, relax, and play the long game. There will be plenty of trips to Israel before the end of his tenure.

I'm pretty confident Kerry won't make the same mistakes his boss did in 2009 and 2010. His real challenge now really doesn't involve the Palestinians and Israelis at all. It's trying to figure out what he's going to do about an imploding Syria, a nuclear Iran, and an increasingly unstable Egypt.

Oh, and one more thing. If Kerry wants to do anything on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he'll first need to persuade Obama to let him really own it.  That doesn't mean being the Lone Ranger of the peace process, but it does mean that he and his team will need to shape and sell their approach to the president, and not just implement a strategy designed by somebody else.

And who better to do this than Kerry? If Obama buys into his approach, he can be the envoy that works the issue, deploys the president as necessary, and in the end brings him in for the guts-and-glory phase. Whether the strategy is to manage the conflict or conclusively resolve it, it's a Kerry strategy. And that's what serious secretaries of state are supposed to do.

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