It was no idle threat. Saeb Erekat really did resign his position as head of the Palestinian negotiating team in the talks with Israel. But American pressure reasserted itself, and he was forced to withdraw his resignation. Erekat and his colleague Mohammad Shtayyeh have come under increasing pressure over the past weeks, both from Fatah and Palestinian public opinion in the West Bank, which demanded that they withdraw from the talks and announce that they have reached a dead end. The climax came last week, Oct. 30, when 26 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli prisons.
The release of those prisoners, most of them considered icons of Palestinian resistance against Israel, was intended to garner public support for senior Palestinian Authority officials in general and Palestinian Chairman Abu Mazen in particular. Abu Mazen really needs that public support, because his return to the negotiating table is perceived as a humiliating surrender to American pressure. The Palestinian Authority insisted that Israel freeze construction in the settlements, so that a significant achievement would be reached before the talks began. In the end, it was decided to compromise on the prisoner release.
The return of those Palestinian prisoners from the Israeli prisons could have been considered a major achievement too. However, on the very day that Abu Mazen, Erekat, Shtayyeh, and other senior Fatah officials were getting ready for a festive reception honoring the prisoners, Israel announced the construction of 1,500 new housing units across the Green Line. The sole purpose of the prisoner release was to strengthen the chairman of the Palestinian Authority and get the Palestinian public behind him. Instead, Abu Mazen became a laughingstock before that very public. The Palestinian media went so far as to accuse Erekat of knowing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intended to announce the new construction in the West Bank, turning him and his people into collaborators with Israel.
Although there was absolutely no basis for these accusations, they spread like wildfire among a public in search of some logical explanation for the existence of negotiations under the current circumstances. This left the heads of the Palestinian negotiating team with no choice. If they wanted to stop being labeled as collaborators — the worst possible insult in the Palestinian Authority. They had to take extreme measures and completely excise themselves from the talks with Israel. According to Palestinian sources, Erekat realized that just sitting with the Israelis under the current conditions did more than just turn him into the subject of Palestinian scorn. It actually put his life at risk. After all, he has been called a traitor on more than one occasion.
In contrast, when Israel’s behavior is scrutinized, more than one question comes up: How do the settlers in Judea and Samaria manage to threaten Netanyahu so successfully each and every time? What is the secret of their power over the prime minister? After deciding to release Palestinian terrorists and murderers that every other Israeli prime minister before him refused to release, why didn’t he turn the release to his advantage diplomatically, instead of making it a meaningless gesture, especially if, as it seems, he did it just to be forgiven by the settlers? It was only last year that Netanyahu was forced to tear down illegal construction in the settlements, such as Givat HaUlpanah in Beit El. Having taken that bold step, why is he now promising hundreds of new apartments in exchange for the prisoner release? Is he trying to placate the settlers?
There is no reasonable way to explain the way Netanyahu makes his decisions, but it is certainly possible to conclude that he is constantly trying to appease the settlers. In other words, he is incapable of making the dramatic decisions necessary to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Senior Palestinian Authority officials understand this. It is exactly what Saeb Erekat told the people around him over the past few days. Anyone who heard the fierce invective that senior Fatah officials hurled at Erekat would realize that even if his life were in no physical danger right now, his status in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority was nonetheless especially vulnerable.
The Palestinian negotiating team headed by him will apparently return to the conference rooms on the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s impending visit to Israel. But it is also safe to assume that when Erekat does return, he will be more stubborn and less optimistic. From this point onward, he will entrench himself in his positions. Every issue within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require painful compromises from both sides. But even in the earliest stages of the talks, Netanyahu pushed Abu Mazen and his team into a corner. The problem is that from that corner, they will have very hard time making any historic decisions.