A Comment on Saeb Erekat’s Statement in the Palestine Chronicle

By Issa Khalaf

In the Palestine Chronicle comments by Dr. Saeb Erekat, (‘Palestine Papers Revealed Nothing: A Response to Ramzy Baroud‘), he writes, "The issues discussed were mechanisms by which Palestinian rights would be realized, rather than forfeited…" I suppose he’s correct in a technical sense. That is, Palestinians were stuck since Oslo in a "peace process" industry that suited both Washington and Israel for obvious reasons. The industry’s essence was subsuming, or substituting, peace’s basis or components for endless talks about getting to peace, of form over substance—hence Erekat’s mechanisms. But how else to characterize these talks except as negotiations, or the Palestine Papers, in fact, revealing reality as we’ve all known it? 

No analyst would describe the Palestinian-Israeli talks during 2008, a period that apparently is particularly damning judging by the Palestine Papers, merely as mechanisms or exploratory just because they are dubbed as such or even entered into on that basis. So there is no “official agreement or document” showing formal concessions, but how should one construe the far reaching offers and concessions the Palestinians were prepared to make without a hint of reciprocity? How helpful is Erekat’s distinction, really, between official positions and explorations/polemical rhetoric?  So what if “the majority of the documents were internal draft summaries of meetings taken in shorthand and intended for personal use only”? They were minutes of meetings, of negotiations—their form and purpose as summaries, shorthand, or for personal use have no bearing on the facts, which is that the Palestinian negotiators made offers that could well have been accepted. Now whether the Palestinian people would have accepted such a final deal is another matter. The negotiating team was offering one thing while telling the Palestinian public another—and still doing so.

What, for example, does the following statement by Dr. Erekat, made on 10 January 2010, mean, if not a negotiated offer put on paper? Yes, on paper.

“What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarised state… what more can I give?”

(I wish Palestinians representing their people in any capacity would stop using the first person pronoun, in braggadocio fashion, just as Arafat distastefully did, as if they embodied Palestine, as if the Palestinian people were their children.)

On refugees, Dr. Erekat writes in the Chronicle:

“Similarly, with regards to the right of return: The Palestinian position emphasized Israel’s responsibility for the creation and perpetuation of Palestinian refugehood [refugee-hood?] and demanded Israeli recognition of responsibility and the right of return, the latter being an individual right that cannot be negotiated away.

“That was the point of departure for the Palestinian position which sought to negotiate a mechanism for the implementation of the right of return as well as the empowerment and respect for the decision of each Palestinian refugee.”

However, Abbas said this: “On numbers of refugees, it is illogical to ask Israel to take 5 million, or indeed 1 million. That would mean the end of Israel.” Erekat apparently confirms this with his reference, above, to a “symbolic number of refugees return.” This is what Abbas and the Palestinian negotiators were thinking. 

And so, the Palestine Papers said that Olmert was willing to accept 1,000 refugees annually over ten years in contrast to Abbas’s offer of 5,000 annually over five years. But even a 10,000 offer from Olmert seems too generous. Bernard Avishai, in his NYT article, “A Plan for Peace that Still Could Be,” says that,

 “Olmert agreed to allow 5,000 Palestinians to return to Israel proper, 1,000 a year for five years—each applicant to be reviewed by Israel, and each accepted ‘for humanitarian reasons.’”  Avishai goes on:

“Olmert suggested in addition that the peace plan include strong wording to the effect that ‘Israel is sensitive and is not indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians who lived in what became Israel and were forced out of their homes as a result of the conflict and then lived in misery for years.’  He added that there should be some wording recognizing also the suffering of Jews from Arab countries who were forced out of their homes after 1948. Equally important, Olmert proposed that all sides work with international bodies and financial institutions to establish an international fund to ‘generously compensate’ refugees for their loss of property. He made it clear that Israel would help organize this fund. ‘In return for this,’ Olmert said, ‘I expected a written commitment that this was the end of all claims and the end of the conflict.’”

How to characterize the Abbas-Olmert talks and the negotiating teams’ talks revealed in the Palestine Papers that Bernard Avishai got fired up over and who understood—like the rest of us—the “talks” for what they were: negotiations? The negotiations failed only because the Israelis wanted much more—and during which they annexed and colonized full speed ahead, hence never negotiating seriously—not because the Palestinians stuck to principles and the 1967 baseline. As I wrote in Mondoweiss, “Israeli governments…rejected the Palestinians’ generous offer. We must therefore remember that the sensationalism about the Papers are unwarranted. At least we can say the Palestinians tried, negotiated in good faith, even capitulated. Now we can say, as if we didn’t conclude this by at least the late 1990s, that the Palestinians must move on” (“Palestine Papers—fantasy and fiasco”). 

What Palestinian doesn’t understand the complexities of the issues and details surrounding negotiations over two states and the need for compromise? And I know Dr. Erekat and Palestinian negotiators were trying their best under impossible conditions and do not want to make promises to their people they cannot keep. This, however, does not afford a carte blanche for unreasonable giveaways and justification for carrying on fruitless negotiations (which, yes, I realize ended last year), for an option that died years back.

The assertion that the PA is pretty much illegitimate is accurate, and Abbas/PA is certainly not elected/constitutional while Hamas is an elected “government.” Of course, the PA was established as a quasi-government/administrative outfit to oversee the implementation of Oslo that Israel copiously violated. Because of this failure, this reality, its duty should have been to dissolve itself years ago, rather than sustain the fiction of peace process and absolve Israel of its responsibility for the occupation. But what has the PA been doing but engaging in negotiations while Israel expands and atomizes the West Bank, cooperating with the US and Israel to strangle Gaza to eliminate Hamas, building a security force whose purpose is more to control the Palestinians than defend them?

Dr. Erekat’s statement that Hamas until now refuses to sign an Egyptian brokered reconciliation agreement is one-sided and doesn’t fully comply with the facts and evidence. I will not rehash what’s been copiously analyzed already, except to say the non-democratically elected PA undermined reconciliation by various means, including making conditions impossible for reconciliation, just what the US and Israel demanded and threatened. We assume, in light of the circumstances since Egypt, that the current PA attempt, certainly coming from Abbas, at reconciliation is more serious, and Hamas may be concerned that elections will see them lose, though it clearly supports and understands the urgency for reconciliation. 

At the same time, one wonders why the PA announced elections before achieving reconciliation with Hamas, as Hamas insists, and if carried through may damage that much more the prospects for Palestinian unity, possibly cause internecine conflict. The PA is apparently still determined to go ahead and declare a state in the fall—even though, as Dr. Erekat himself says, it will not end Israeli occupation or achieve Palestinian self-determination. Still, under the pressure of Arab revolts, reshuffling cabinets and calling for elections will not fix the very large gap between the Palestinian people and their PA leaders. 

The PA can indeed choose to continue with the status quo, dissolve itself—(which Erekat says it’s thinking of doing)—or, better yet, achieve reconciliation with Hamas and transform itself through democratic representation of all Palestinian civil society groups and parties in preparation for a non-violent struggle for Palestinian rights and freedom. End all engagement with the “peace process,” including, of course, no return to “negotiations,” and still go to the UN to declare the illegality of the occupation and settlements, but do not declare a state without national agreement on this, that is, as part of an inclusive strategy decided on by a transformed popular Palestinian representation.

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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