Saeb Erekat Answers Readers' Questions

Ariel Zilber
Sara Miller
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ariel Zilber
Sara Miller

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat spent an hour Tuesday answering questions posed by readers. Thank you to the thousands of people who contributed to this live event.

Saeb Erekat has been a fixture in Mideast peacemaking since the Madrid Conference, through the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn, to the Camp David and Taba negotiations.

He has headed the Palestinian delegations at most negotiations with Israel since 1991, and was viewed as staunch loyalist of Yasser Arafat until the latter's death in 2004. He is now a key adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and accompanied him on his recent trip to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama.

Erekat was born in Jerusalem in 1955. He gained his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from San Francisco University, and holds a PhD from Bradford University in Britain.

He also spent more than a decade on the editorial board of Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, and lectured at An-Najan University in the West Bank city of Nablus.

What is the Palestinian view on large existing settlements in the West Bank (for example Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim)? Israelis aim to let them stay and give some territory in exchange. We never hear the Palestinian position in that. Is this acceptable and in what national consensus? Thanks. Asked by Ivana Zuntova, from Prague, Czech Republic

Saeb Erekat: Settlements and peace don't go together. To us as Palestinians, when we advocate the two state solution and recognition of Israel, we say Israel exists on 78 percent and Palestinian on 22 percent. To see the Israelis coming to this 22 percent and trying to create facts on the ground and tell you later it's reality. They negotiate with themselves - Netanyahu, Ya'alon, Yishai - and and then they tell me: "Come here boy, we know what's best for you, that's what you should accept." This is dictation, this is not negotiations. You want me to go to the Palestinians and say this is a good agreement? Negotiation is about giving and taking, but those Israelis who want to advocate the settlements, they are making peace with themselves and not with me.

By the way, I am a fact on the ground, I don't intend to disappear. Many people thought I would disappear. Wake up. I am here and here to stay. My generation is extending its arms to you, saying let's be good neighbors. You are eating up the same territory that I am supposed to build my state on.

What pressure is the PA applying on Israel and/or the world to force Israel to stop holding American-Palestinians at Ben-Gurion Airport when they are trying to visit the West Bank? Asked by Mohammed Awadallah, from Al Bireh, Palestine

Saeb Erekat: This is shameful and this should stop. I don?t have any pressure on anyone, I cannot pressure Israel. If I violate the agreement, Jericho is closed, Gaza is closed - you have teeth. If you violate the agreement what do I do? Write to [Obama's Mideast envoy George] Mitchell? Haaretz?

Wake up! This is shameful, this should stop? Each time someone wants to go to a conference in Rome, the U.S. I have to apply. The Israelis should take notice of this, and stop it.

Dr. Erekat, after 18 years of negotiating with Israel, do you think that anything can be achieved under Obama's administration? Asked by Jerusalemite, from Jerusalem, Palestine

Saeb Erekat: I did not wake up one morning as a Palestinian and feel my conscience aching for Israeli or Jewish suffering that I sat with them at the negotiating table, and neither did they. They did not wake up one morning and feel their conscience aching for Palestinian suffering.

I don't think we wasted one minute negotiating. I know that Palestinians and Israelis a lot of time don't have eyes that see what has been achieved. We have come a long way in these 18 years. The situation here - we are not running a conflict between Iraq and Iran... this is a different type of conflict. I am a product of conflict resolution, it's about things that make Palestinians and Israelis believe.

If you read Judaism, Islam and Christianity very carefully, you will find that the three religions advocate peace, saving lives, healing, forgiveness ... Why is it that the most vicious calls to conflict come from mosques and synagogues? Which shows how much religion is being used in our conflict. The minute you start going to synagogues and mosques to use God, you have bloodshed.

I recall in 1979 when I took Israeli students from Tel Aviv University to An Naja University in Nablus, my classes were boycotted [by Palestinians]. The thing that most Israelis don't want to know is what you go through for your principles. I remember the isolation...

Obama will make not peace for us, it is Palestinians and Israelis that will have to make the decisions. Americans will help, but Palestinians should not make a mistake. If peace is to be made, no one will impose a decision upon us.

The bigger picture in the region is how we go - do we go in the vehicles of [Osama] bin Laden or the vehicles of democracy?

Peace is doable. Palestinians and Israelis should not despair, we have not wasted one minute in the last 18 years. There have been a lot of changes in the way we look to each other. Eight years ago, we saw Israelis as soldiers and Israelis saw us as suicide bombers.

Obama told us he wants a Palestinian state because this serves American interests...

I want the Israelis to stop exporting fear to their people. Leaders who make fear export as their basis are doomed to have their people live in fear and by fear. You have a hand extended to you, [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is ready to restart negotiations. Obama is pursuing his interests.

Two things will determine the future: Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and democracy in the Arab world. Anyone who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist.

With Hamas in Gaza, can a peace agreement be reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority? Asked by Sharon Cohen, of New York, U.S.A. (A similar question was asked by Steve A. from Manchester, U.K.)

Saeb Erekat: Hamas said because we won the elections, the UN must cancel all their obligations... And that's why Hamas failed and democracy won.

That's what we are challenging Hamas with - we want to go to the ballot, not the bullet. And that's why we need an end game with Israel. If I have an end game agreement showing the two-state solution, Hamas will disappear, if I don't, I will disappear. That's the fight. It's about me saying it's doable, through peace.

Time is of the essence... The shortest time possible means how many Palestinian and Israeli lives you will save and that's not wishful thinking. The sooner you identify the end game, the sooner you begin the process of changes. Agreements will be signed but you will not make peace, what will make peace is the day after. We are two societies that can be easily hit by fear export.

Will you ever recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Thank you Asked by Jon P, from Buffalo, U.S.A.

Saeb Erekat: That's so amazing of Israel. The birth certificate of Israel as embodied in the UN is called the State of Israel so I'm asked to recognize the State of Israel. I'm a Palestinian, Muslim, Christian, I don't think about converting to Judaism or joining the Zionist organization.

I'm not going to call the shots for you. I'm not going to stop you from circumcising your boys, I'm not going to stop you from going to synagogues. You can call yourself whatever you want.

If you want to call yourself the biblical, united, eternal, holy, milk and honey land of Jewish Israel, submit your name to the UN. Your name is the State of Israel. It's unbelievable to ask Palestinians.

Fatah has been criticized for being corrupt and therefore partially to blame for the success of Hamas. Has the organization changed in light of these claims? Asked by Danny Sher, from Jerusalem, Israel

Saeb Erekat: Last week we had the sixth conference of Fatah, for the first time in 20 years. We have 2,325 delegates from 152 countries and territories worldwide. I've heard them speaking in Latin, [with] American accents, British accents, in German, in English. Fatah is not a party that has a leader that sits in the mountains somewhere and writes...

There were 2,325 brains sitting in this conference, did we shout at this conference? Yes. Was I shouted at? Yes. Was I criticized? Like hell... But I stood up and I said to them what I told you about peace. We have to pursue the peace process, the two-state solution and understand the changes around us. I told them that leaders usually tell people what you like to hear, I'll tell you what you need to hear, and I did.

There was the Bethlehem declaration reiterating the two-state solution, the road map, appreciating Obama's efforts, and politically speaking, Fatah mandated us to pursue the two-state solution. I'm not saying Fatah is perfect, there are those who try to use their posts and ranks to benefit.

One of the most important decisions is we have a party court where people can make claims against people and I want Palestinians to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty. And I think that the establishment of this court will deal with these issues and I hope the next Fatah conference will see a party fully reformed, fully empowered, fully restoring the credibility in the minds of Palestinians.