It was in early fall of 1997 or 1998. A quick check in an archive could say when it was for sure, but it doesn’t really matter now. In any event, I was on my way back from Gaza to Ramallah. It was evening, but not too late because the paper hadn’t gone to press yet. The night editor called and asked me to try to get something about the meeting that had taken place that day between PLO representatives and officials from the Netanyahu government. I remember that the Israeli representative was Danny Naveh. He was the cabinet secretary at the time and as such was appointed “head of the Israeli steering committee with the Palestinians” (as Wikipedia reminds me).
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I stopped at a gas station near Ashkelon (strange, the kind of detail one does remember!) and phoned Dr. Saeb Erekat, either because the radio had reported that he participated in the meeting or because I knew he usually answered phone calls.
There’s nothing to say because nothing happened, he answered when I put my question to him. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something about the minor issues that had been discussed at the meeting. Then he suddenly sighed and said, “Tell me, Amira…” I was surprised that he addressed me so directly, in such a friendly way.
I had never been – and am still not – a journalist who maintains personal, amicable relations with high-ranking officials. Even if they are among the leadership of the people that we occupy and oppress with such expertise and efficiency. (And that’s regardless of the fact that, unfortunately, this particular leadership has done its utmost to lose its own people’s trust. And another thing, for clarification: I always thought that the same leadership’s premature use of self-important terms like “government” and “ministers” when its actual authorities couldn’t measure up to those of some local council, was fairly ridiculous. And just as ridiculous was its members’ consent to the use of inflated and old-fashioned titles like “his highness” or “the venerable” minister or ambassador or senior officer).
“Tell me, Amira,” Erekat said. “Don’t the Israelis think about their grandchildren?” He didn’t have to explain to me what he meant, but just in case someone doesn’t get it: Erekat was asking how Israelis could be so sure they could go on occupying and oppressing and behaving with such arrogance and condescension, without there being any implications for future generations – without terrible things happening and the normality that they so crave collapsing amid much pain for them too.
His question was full of empathy and genuine anxiety. It revealed his positions more than any polished speech or eloquent statement in a television interview. It showed me how much Erekat saw and accepted this piece of land, his homeland, as the home of Jewish Israelis too. And so he, like others, committed himself to the track of the Oslo Accords and the negotiations that he thought – or was tempted to think, as were many in the PLO – were negotiations for peace with Israel that would culminate in a respecting and respectful agreement.
Erekat, the chief negotiator with Israel who passed away last week at 65, represents an entire generation of Palestinians born in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who were children in 1967 and discovered after the war that year, contrary to what they had heard before, that there was an entire thriving Israeli-Jewish society that saw its presence here as completely normal. They discovered that this society was not “artificial,” that it was not just “a military base” and that it would not vanish of its own accord “like rotten fruit falling from the tree” – as the sedative slogans many Palestinians clung to during the harsh years after their catastrophe, the Nakba, put it.
For the generation of the first intifada, this new sobering up, as painful and bitter and controversial as it was, and the growing familiarity with Israelis of all stripes and outlooks, evolved into a hope that it was possible to embark on a different path, a path-for-life, with Israel and the Jews in Israel.
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The immediate and necessary condition for this was for Israel to wean itself off its desire to devour more Palestinian lands. But this did not happen. Just the opposite: Israel, under both Labor and Likud governments, exploited the years of negotiations to continue its plunder. Every Palestinian still wakes up each morning with the knowledge that not only has Israel brought disaster after disaster upon them, their family and nation, but it intends to continue doing so, and as of yet no existing Palestinian leadership has been able to stop this.
Was there some point where the Fatah-led Palestinian leadership could have taken a different position, acting with more resolve and wisdom at the negotiating table so that Israel would change? If so, it could only have happened if the U.S. and European countries had stopped treating Israel like a country that is above international law, like a porcelain doll that must be wrapped in endless forgiveness and concession.
Was there a chance this would happen? Apparently not, and the Palestinian leadership presumably understood this. Could it have willingly ceded its limited control over the enclaves that Israel left it in the 1967 occupied territory and chosen a totally different path of struggle that also entailed giving up the material benefits and international standing that this control afforded it, its close circles and families? Apparently only a new Palestinian leadership will be able to search for new and different ways to fight for liberation. But it will not happen soon – and it is not the subject of this column.