Palestine Liberation Organization secretary general Saeb Erekat made an impassioned plea for Israel “not to give up” on the two-state solution in favor of “apartheid” in an emotional and bitter speech which prompted a standing ovation at the HaaretzQ policy conference's opening session in New York on Sunday.
Erekat, who has played a central role over the years in peace talks on the Palestinians' behalf, said the reality being created on the ground will not create a single binational Jewish-Palestinian state, but what he called “one state, two systems,” which he described plainly as “an apartheid state.”
Erekat was a major player in negotiating the Oslo Accords in the 1990s that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. He was also a key negotiator at the 2000 Camp David summit, which ended in failure and was followed by the second intifada. He was also present at the Taba negotiations the following year.
Commenting that Haaretz was “courageous to invite me” as a HaaretzQ conference keynote speaker, he thanked several Haaretz journalists who cover the Palestinians “for having the courage to allow me to tell my story, because I am sick and tired of people trying to tell my story for me.”
Seemingly choked up, Erekat told his audience that his nephew was shot and killed earlier this month at a West Bank checkpoint, apparently a reference to Mazen Aribeh, who was killed by Israeli security forces after shooting and wounding two Israelis at the Hizmeh checkpoint north of Jerusalem.
He said he felt that that the “daughters, nephews and grandsons” of Israelis and Palestinians were paying the price “for our failure to achieve peace, for our failure to achieve a two-state solution.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying, he said. “President [Barack] Obama and Secretary [of State John] Kerry have done everything possible to achieve a two-state solution,” he said, referring to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “Like me, they were foiled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
With angry sarcasm in his voice, Erekat said: “I want to congratulate Netanyahu” for “destroying a culture of negotiations, a culture of dialogue, a culture of peace.”
For his part, however, Netanyahu has claimed that it has been the Palestinians who have been unwilling to come to the negotiating table without precondition and not Israel.
Addressing Israelis directly, Erekat said: “We are your neighbors. Stop this colonial regime .. No wars have ever provided security. Reach [out] to us, stand tall, tell us that you are our neighbors. Israel should recognize the state of Palestine before any other country on earth.”
In his years as a negotiator, he said, he never felt he was "doing the Israeli people a favor. Achieving a two-state solution is in the cardinal interest of the Palestinians," he stated, adding bitingly: “I hope in Israel they don't feel like they are doing me a favor when they tie my hands and legs and throw me [into] the sea and say he isn’t swimming.”
Despite today’s harsh reality, Erekat said hehas not altered his view that there is no other way to resolve the conflict. “We may not achieve it today or next year," he said, but "Palestinians and Israelis have no option but the option of a two-state solution” achieved through bilateral negotiations, not unilateral action.
In this context, ironically, Israeli officials have been accused the Palestinians of pursuing their own unilateral action, by pursuing international recognition of a State of Palestine by national governments and international institutions.
“Please don’t give up on this option,” Erekat said of the two-state vision. “Giving up on this option would mean only one thing - that we as parents and grandparents will continue taking our loved ones to cemeteries.”
Referring to the current wave of violence, Erekat did not issue an outright condemnation of Palestinian terrorist acts. He did, however, make reference to frequent criticism of the Palestinian Authority, alleging that it was inciting the violence. “Sometimes it's hard to differentiate between freedom of speech and incitement,” he said. “We are trying to fix it.”
When it comes to regional issues in the Middle East, Erekat offered a clear-throated condemnation of ISIS, the Islamic State group, saying: “These people have nothing to do with my religion. These people are criminals and thugs, but I haven't seen any society in the history of man that can kill ideas with bullets, arrows and swords.”
Referring to last July's firebombing of the home of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank Palestinian village of Duma, killing both parents and a child, Erekat said he saw no difference between ISIS “thugs and murders” who behead Western journalists and “thugs and murderers” responsible for burning the Dawabshe family to death.
He had two prescriptions for defeating ISIS, the first of which involves promoting democracy in the Arab world. "Anyone who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist,” he commented. The second element, Erekat told his HaaretzQ audience, is peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “Peace and democracy. That is what will defeat ISIS.”