The Palestinian Negotiator Who Cried Wolf

Saeb Erekat isn't to blame for his serial resignation threats; he wasn't the one who decided to negotiate under such humiliating circumstances.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Heartless Palestinians have been expressing scorn for the latest resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team in the renewed talks with the Israelis, especially for its head, Dr. Saeb Erekat. In contrast with his colleague on the team Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, Erekat is seen as a serial “I threaten to resign” person, just as he is seen as the perpetual negotiator in the Palestinian-Israeli talks that give the impression that they will go on forever.

The letter of resignation, circles in Ramallah are saying, was submitted early last week. Two interconnected issues sparked Erekat’s latest resignation: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that thousands of additional housing units would be built in West Bank settlements as a response to the second stage in the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons, and the dissemination of the claim that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian negotiating team knew about, and thus tacitly agreed to, the additional construction activity.

That is absolute nonsense. Does anyone think that Netanyahu would not have made that declaration if he had not been given the green light from the PA?

It is easy to spread such an absurd rumor, because the experience of the past 20 years shows that the Palestinian leadership has been unable to prevent Israel from seizing control of land in the West Bank. Many people in Hamas are already exploiting this baseless argument for propaganda purposes − as if Hamas’ tactic of armed struggle has been able to thwart Israeli construction activity in the West Bank.

Compared with other senior Palestinian leaders, Erekat has been the target of immense scorn from the Palestinian public because of the great media interest in the talks with Israel. It is unfair that he should be subjected to such a disproportionate measure of ridicule.

There are perpetual Palestinian negotiators who, for years, have been conducting talks on civilian and ongoing security matters with senior Israeli officials from the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces and the office of COGAT, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. There is no evidence that all these meetings have advanced the Palestinian people to independence or that they fill Palestinians with pride over their representatives' performance in these talks. The spotlights are not aimed at these negotiations and they are exempt from scorn, anger or any demand of accountability.

The letters of resignation submitted by Erekat and Shtayyeh are a clear message to other senior officials in the Palestinian leadership: “You people have abandoned us and left us to face the public’s scorn on our own. In the final analysis, there was a collective agreement to accept Abbas’ decision to return to the negotiating table under such humiliating and hopeless circumstances.”

Even what is being termed a “threat to undertake measures” is a standard Pavlovian reaction on the part of the Palestinians. The term “threat” is a common Israeli exaggeration used to describe the official Palestinian tendency toward hollow declarations that are a cover-up for inertia and a lack of strategy. Nearly every foreign diplomat with whom one talks on condition of anonymity is puzzled by the lack of strategy displayed by the Palestinian leadership under Abbas. Decisions are made without much prior thought, and every political move is an isolated act without any follow-up or contingency plans in the desk drawer. Thus, the public scorn is very important because it just might make some people in the Palestinian leadership actually listen to the content of the criticism, even if only to keep their reputation unsullied.

The foreign diplomats' puzzlement regarding the lack of strategy is justified, but it must be supplemented by a puzzled interjection: If the countries that these diplomats represent were faithful to their declarations supporting a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 borders and opposing the settlements, they would have undertaken a long time ago a few necessary and simple diplomatic measures to make it clear to Israel that what it regards as normative and natural − namely, the domination of another people − is a punishable act. Only then could the consistent Palestinian position in favor of a peace solution with Israel be seen as strategic.

But let's get back to the “threat.” On Thursday, after an emergency meeting at Abbas’ office, the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization announced that the Palestinian leadership would in the coming days undertake certain measures to deal with the “settlement offensive,” and, in addition, to protect Palestinian national interests and prevent the peace process from hitting a dead end.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry in Ramallah reported that it was “studying [the possibility] of turning to international courts and to the relevant international institutions” (with regard to the above-mentioned housing units in the West Bank). The ministry also, of course, condemned the Israeli decision to engage in such construction activity.

This arrangement has been created over the past two decades for dividing up the work: One side builds and the other side condemns the building activity. How many times has the Palestinian public heard its leaders issue condemnations, promise to undertake measures, and promise to study the issue and turn to international courts? The same number as that of the housing units built in West Bank settlements since 1994.

If there really were letters of resignation, Abbas would have refused to accept them. However, it can be assumed that the separate meeting of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Abbas and the Palestinian negotiating team is intended to put out the current fire. According to one report, the meeting will take place in Bethlehem.

Here is my modest suggestion for the meeting’s agenda: The meeting should be held on the lands of the village of Khirbet Nahleh, south of Bethlehem. The West Bank settlement of Efrat is busy advancing its plan to establish an agricultural farm there (on an area registered as being owned by a subsidiary of the Jewish National Fund, Himanuta). The route leading to the planned farm would go through land privately owned by Palestinians, although they are opposed to the idea and this would violate their private property rights.

According to publications issued by the settlement of Efrat, its land reserve for construction purposes is located there. The total area is 1,700 dunams (some 420 acres); the 13 Palestinians who own this land have hired a lawyer to fight the Civil Administration’s declaration that this is “state land.” The purpose of the declaration is clear: To gradually link Efrat to the settlement of Tekoa to the east, and thus complete the transformation of the Bethlehem area into a Palestinian “Bantustan,” totally cut off from its surroundings.

Perhaps this is the right time to ask the American secretary of state to use his influence, so that the Palestinian owners of these lands can find employment at the industrial park of the Gush Etzion bloc.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, hosts an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at the State Department in Washington July 29, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb ErekatCredit: Dan Keinan

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