A Message for Olmert

Dr. Saeb Erekat, a prominent and veteran Palestinian negotiator, looks back on the six Israeli prime ministers he has worked with, and also offers a few tips to the acting premier

Dr. Saeb Erekat is the only Palestinian who has accompanied the peace process, and the six Israeli prime ministers who have been in power, from the 1991 Madrid Conference to this very day. He does not forget the last words he heard from Ariel Sharon: Why not buy on the black market, or from Hamas? - the prime minister fired at the Palestinian team sitting opposite him. That was Sharon's response to the request by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to allow the PA to purchase arms and ammunition in order to disarm the members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to confiscate their ammunition.

Says Erekat, 50, and currently head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's Negotiations Affairs Department: "Abu Mazen is the most decent human being you will encounter in your life. When he is speaking he does not use his body language, not like us. Abu Mazen was absolutely shocked [by Sharon], and then a few minutes later Mr. Sharon says to him: 'Do you want Bethlehem?' [Said Abu Mazen:] 'I don't want Bethlehem. I don't want anything ...'"

The second recollection of Sharon brings Erekat, who is interviewed in English, back to the fall of 1998. Then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA chairman Yasser Arafat were invited to the Wye Plantation near Washington, D.C. "Yes," recalls Erekat. "I remember Arafat going to one room and President [Bill] Clinton was shaking hands with him, [National Security Adviser] Sandy Berger, [Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright, Netanyahu, and then [Arafat] coming to Sharon. Sharon very politely puts his hand on his chest. [He had then just recently been appointed foreign minister - A.E.] Of all the prime ministers in Israel, Sharon was the most candid and diplomatic. He was not shy. He says exactly how he feels. And I don't think he trusted the Palestinians, or the Arabs for that matter."

In February 2001, the day after Sharon's election as prime minister, Ghassan al-Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Media Institute and later a member of the Palestinian cabinet, warned that the Israelis would soon be in trouble. The daily newspaper Al-Ayyam wrote in an editorial that the two sides could expect a generous amount of suffering before the Israeli voters understood that to achieve security and peace, they had to choose a different path, and that this path did not pass by Sharon's door.

Arafat's close adviser at the time, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, dared to hope that the election of Sharon heralded new initiatives in the peace process. Also Erekat was not in a panic. "Look," he says. "After years of negotiations, you learn that what separates people is not mainly political issues, but there is a cultural divide, ethical divide, perception divide" - and differences in the world view of the leaders. In all these areas, Erekat, our neighbor from Jericho, sees substantial differences between the prime ministers who dictated his personal fate and that of the political process.

The senior officials he has met are not all alike either. "They were negotiating water, for instance, and we were talking about how the settlers take 120 million cubic meters annually compared to 30 million cubic meters ... One Israeli negotiator spontaneously said, 'But we take showers every day.' We saw the embarrassment on the faces of his colleagues."

That was not the first nor only time that Erekat encountered prejudice toward the Palestinians on the part of his negotiation partners: "It happens that people have this perception about you, they have you as Palestinian with one name, one face ... They don't see us the way we are ... The common denominator among all Israeli prime ministers, and I think Israelis in general, is the public opinion within their circles. So to [Yitzhak] Shamir, the public opinion within his circle was Sharon and what he would think about him, then he had to think extreme. The same thing with [Yitzhak] Rabin, the same with [Benjamin] Netanyahu. Netanyahu was worried about the extremists in the Likud. And so on."

Erekat and his fellow Palestinian leaders, especially those who have been living for almost 40 years under Israeli rule, have become familiar with the outer circles as well. He says that they didn't believe for a moment that Shamir really intended to conduct negotiations with them, and said openly that his intention was to waste time and score points.

The Palestinians went to Madrid "under the umbrella of the Jordanian and Palestinian joint delegation at that time. I had to put on a kaffiyeh to make sure that they understood who I represented and [Shamir's people] got so angry with me, I could not believe what they were doing ... This is simple: 50 percent of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank and Gaza put this kaffiyeh on, this is not a crime. It's exactly the same to ask a Jew to take the skullcap off. Why did they become so obsessed about it? It showed how much they wanted to make peace. But you know ... things have to begin. We had to go to Washington because the Americans wanted us to go to Washington ... I knew very well that Shamir did not represent Israelis. I knew that Israelis wanted peace - as a matter of fact, I knew that in the elections Shamir would lose."

Yet, in the final analysis, Erekat has a warm spot in his heart for Shamir. "Unwillingly, forced, with his own agenda, a separate agenda from the terms of reference agenda [UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 - A.E.], but that's where the peace process began. And maybe Mr. Shamir did not realize that things have their natural growth, and those who will go against this process will just disappear - as he did."

Yitzhak Rabin

As in the Israeli "peace camp," the Palestinian leadership in the territories hoped that the Labor-Meretz government would revive the peace process that was dying a slow death in Washington. The beginning was not promising. "I'm not sure if Rabin knew what he wanted to do with us [laughter] as a Palestinian delegation, under the joint umbrella of Jordan and Palestine," recalls Erekat. "I thought that Rabin did not know what to do with us. I'm sure he realized that we were the most disadvantaged delegation in history. We were not the PLO ... We were being moved by Tunis, Abu Amar [a.k.a. Arafat] and others - and we were there to be the bridge of the PLO. I did not know that Oslo existed till I heard about it in the news - and it was my beautiful surprise."

Erekat believes that the decision to recognize the PLO and the Palestinian people was a clear expression of Rabin's world view. "I knew that we're in business because negotiation with the PLO, negotiation with the Palestinian people, reflected, in my opinion, the mentality of Mr. Rabin ... I realized that this man was looking at the Israeli security ... and he wanted to make sure that he will see Israel in the year 2300. I saw that in him when we were negotiating the elections.

"One day they took me to meet Mr. Rabin ... And I told him that we want to have a parliament, a speaker in the parliament and to separate it from the president of the authority, that we want democracy ... And he goes to me like this" - here Erekat imitates Rabin's deep voice - "'Does your chairman really want democracy?' I told him, of course. He wants to legitimize domestically and he wants to legitimize internationally ... and that's why he wanted democracy in the elections. He told me that if Palestine develops into a democracy this will be the best thing that will happen to the Israeli security. And then he sanctioned the 88 seats [in the Parliament] and the separation of the president from the authority."

After prolonged observation of the man who is considered to be the hero of the peace, however, Erekat comments: "He was not sure about us ... but I think, I am not sure, watching him in many meetings, being frustrated with us, doubting us, the way he used Shimon Peres to come and see President Arafat ... All in all, I believe that he knew the end game, and that we were still far from what it takes."

Erekat adds that often he asks himself whether Rabin, had he lived, would have turned his back on the peace process and chosen the unilateral path, as Sharon did.

Shimon Peres

Probably few people remember that it was prime minister Shimon Peres, and not Ehud Barak, who began the negotiations for a final status agreement with the Palestinians. A few weeks before the elections in which he lost to Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres sent the head of the Israeli negotiating team, Uri Savir, to the official opening ceremony of the next stage of the Oslo Accords in Taba. Erekat, then a senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team, said before going to Taba that the Palestinian side had no high hopes concerning the outcome of the opening meeting. The declaration summing up the meetings stated that: "Both sides confirm their commitment to advance a just and permanent overall peace arrangement, and to continue to fight terror."

Savir added a diagnosis of his own: "Although we have difficult issues to bridge, we have at our disposal three years in which to carry out this bridging, and that is a lot of time."

"I think that of all the Israeli prime ministers," Erekat says, "the only one who was willing to trust us was Shimon Peres. I think the common denominator of all other Israeli prime ministers is that they did not trust us."

A senior Israeli official who participated in the strange ceremony recalled that it was one of the heads of the Palestinian delegation who pessimistically whispered in his ear: "I don't believe that it will ever be possible to achieve peace with you." To help Peres beat Netanyahu in the elections, and on the assumption that Peres would win, Arafat agreed to postpone decisions concerning Hebron in the interim agreement.

Benjamin Netanyahu

"Netanyahu was a non-negotiator. In Wye River, I told Arafat, 'Sign it - it will not be implemented,'" Erekat recalls. He was sure that Netanyahu had no intention of carrying out what he had signed.

In his book "Sodot memshala" ("State Secrets"), Danny Naveh, who was Netanyahu's emissary to negotiations with the Palestinians, admits that even before the Wye summit, they had "in effect dissolved" any discussion about the building of the seaport in Gaza. Shortly after their return from the United States, it turned out that Netanyahu did not intend to fulfill his commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. Erekat's nephew, a young student at the time, was shot to death by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who had been sent to suppress a demonstration in favor of releasing the prisoners. Naveh called to console Erekat.

"Only rarely do you come across a Palestinian whose name is known to you personally," wrote Netanyahu's right-hand man then, adding: "He was an unnecessary victim of a violent Palestinian demonstration."

As usual, the Palestinian victim was to blame.

Ehud Barak

Only the great hope that accompanied his victory over Netanyahu can compare with the Palestinians' great disappointment with Ehud Barak. "Barak for me was like someone who came out of a chapter of a Greek tragedy," says Erekat today, of the great hope that replaced the Netanyahu nightmare for him. "Someone who had so much potential, having all the ingredients ... [to] shoot for the end game. And yet this man seems to claim the knowledge exclusively. Ready or not ready for a summit - he decides; ready or not ready for a meeting - he decides. Then at the end of the day he blamed the Palestinians. I think he's the one who really fractured the peace process. Because the whole idea of a peace process was that of two people meeting and negotiating. Even Netanyahu did that. Barak could not do that.

"Camp David was not a failure. Barak's months in the government turned so many stones [over] between the Palestinians and Israelis, and I don't think it would have happened without him. He had courage. It was the first time we discussed Jerusalem and refugees. But he wanted to use the Americans to move things for him. Which was really suffocating us."

During Bill Clinton's first visit to Israel, after the end of his term, Erekat asked him why he had decided to blame Arafat for the failure of the peace process. Erekat claims that Clinton said that he did so at Barak's request, because Barak felt that that could help him in the elections.

Ehud Olmert

Ehud Olmert is one of the Israeli politicians whose cell-phone number does not appear in Erekat's address book. He says he would like to send Olmert the following message: "I'm saying to Mr. Olmert: You can revive the peace process and revive hope and influence developments for you and the Palestinians, by agreeing and accepting our call to resume the negotiations. You may, Mr. Olmert, choose the way and say I'm going [through a] transition and it's too early. That's the natural politician's response. I hope you take the baton of leaders and not politicians. Before the elections. Because that will be the sign."

"You [Israelis] complicate it for me, your politics," sums up Erekat. "Somebody leaves the party, founds a new party and the party he forms gets 40 seats without even presenting a platform? Where is your ideology?"

And yet, he notes, the Palestinians are no different. In their case, someone enters prison - and receives 40 percent of the vote. Apparently, he says, we are all dominated by fear.