Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on March 18 called the latest meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack Obama “candid, difficult and long” and said that Abbas had given Obama a map showing that Israel has built more than 10,000 new housing units in Jewish settlements since talks resumed last year.
Erekat, in a rare public appearance in Washington, said Israel's settlement construction amounts to “four times the natural growth of New York City,” but that the Palestinians remain committed to the talks and appreciate the efforts of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
With the latest iteration of negotiations due to expire at the end of April, there had been some expectation that the Obama administration would give Abbas a framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This did not happen,” Erekat said, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “We are still at the stage of discussing ideas.” The talks with Abbas, on March 17, followed on a meeting between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last week.
Erekat said that past efforts to resolve the conflict have failed because US negotiators were repackaging Israeli ideas and trying to sell them to the Palestinians. “The US needs to depart from the square of what’s possible [in the Israeli view] to the square of what’s needed,” he said. The Obama administration is more forthcoming in this regard than its predecessors, he added, “showing some genuine indication of what’s needed.”
Erekat declined to provide details, noting that the sides have pledged that only Kerry can speak on their behalf unless or until there is an agreement. In response to a question from Al-Monitor, however, Erekat did elaborate about why the Palestinians have rejected a demand by Israel that it recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Erekat pointed out that the Palestinians have already recognized the State of Israel, under the 1993 Oslo Accord. Asking them to go further would be demanding that Palestinians change their own narrative about the history of the land on which they live, he said, noting that his hometown of Jericho is 10,000 years old.
“Israelis cannot deny the fact that I have my own narrative, religion,” he asserted. Calling Israel a Jewish state would imply that “I was the intruder on this land. It’s not my story.”
Erekat added that the demand had been raised by Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni three years ago and was not part of the original core issues of settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and security. “Let us confine ourselves to what we agreed to discuss, then Israel can define itself as it likes,” said Erekat. He added that if he were an Israeli negotiator, he would focus on "the end of conflict and the end of claims."
Settlements remain the major concern for Palestinians, who have seen the number of Jews living on land they claim for their own state more than double, from about 230,000 in 1995 to more than 560,000.
“We put a map to President Obama showing him the extent of what’s happened since we began [talks] in July. It’s a very ugly map,” Erekat said.
Indeed, the West Bank increasingly resembles a piece of Swiss cheese, with deeper and larger Israeli sections. Erekat repeated Palestinian demands that Israel accept the 1967 borders between Israel and the West Bank as the basis for a settlement, with agreed swaps of territory.
The map distributed by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
Asked by former US negotiator Aaron David Miller if he saw Netanyahu potentially as a “transformative hawk” who could make peace, as Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin did, or withdraw from land as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did, Erekat recounted his last meeting with Netanyahu a year ago, when he delivered a letter to the Israeli leader from Abbas.
Netanyahu said, “Saeb, I’m really going to do it!” referring to a peace agreement. Erekat then said in Hebrew, “1967,” and asked Netanyahu to repeat it. The Israeli leader “couldn’t say it,” Erekat said. “He really has to make up his mind.”
Erekat, who has been negotiating with Israelis for more than 20 years, praised Kerry for his “relentless, unwavering commitment” to the negotiations. He added, “I heard from Obama yesterday that Kerry has his full backing,” something that has been the subject of some speculation. Erekat noted that since Kerry took office a year ago, “He has held 47 meetings with President Abbas and 27 meetings with me.”
“I feel a difference this time,” he said. “President Obama is genuinely trying to achieve a historic change in the course of Middle East history, and he recognizes it begins with a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
“I hope that once the end product is put on the table, it will reflect American ideas because that’s the key to success,” Erekat asserted. He added that the Palestinians have the most to gain if Obama and Kerry succeed and the most to lose if they fail.