A Conversation With Saeb Erakat
Decisions must be made and the status quo regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations cannot continue, according to Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator and head of the Negotiations Affairs Department. Erakat discussed the ongoing frustration of Palestinians in a conversation with Woodrow Wilson Center public policy scholar Aaron David Miller on November 4, 2010 at a forum hosted by the Middle East Program.
Erakat explained that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories began when he was 12 years old, and he was first imprisoned by Israelis at age 13. Now in his 50s, Erakat discussed how his life has shaped his role not only as a chief Palestinian negotiator but also as the narrator of the Palestinian experience as a people without a home of their own, unrecognized as a nation. Erakat also described how this experience has been "suffocating," both individually and collectively.
While most of Miller's questions to Erakat centered on Palestinian politics and how they have shaped Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the years, in addition to America's role in past and present negotiations, Erakat's answers often referenced the disappointment that each negotiation has left his people. When asked what the Palestinian leadership's greatest flaw and weakness has been over the years regarding negotiations, Erakat answered that they have not approached the negotiations with enough force. Erakat indicated that despite not having any of the typical tools with which to negotiate, a military or a viable economy for example, Palestinians have a very powerful tool: human dignity. Furthermore, he noted that Palestinian leadership is young and relatively inexperienced, and because it is still in transition it makes mistakes. He said that the Palestinian leadership, in addition to Israeli and American leadership, must recognize that Israeli and American policies have not been perfect either.
However, regardless of improvements in perspectives or negotiations, Erakat continued to argue his main point: it is time for decisions. The parties know fundamentally the solution to Jerusalem, what they are going to do about security, and the limitations of the solutions. The point Palestinians have not pushed hard enough, according to Erakat, is that there "are no limitations on peoples' dignity." When Israel understands this point, and when American leadership understands that ultimately only Israelis and Palestinians can make the decisions for their futures, then peace will come, he said. Erakat noted that we are witnessing a defining moment. Negotiations and decisions can move the region forward or backward, but the status quo cannot be maintained. Erakat stated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be stalling to keep the status quo for political reasons, but the Palestinians will tolerate it no longer. Negotiations after negotiations, in which Erakat has participated, have set the foundation for this moment that Erakat argued requires an endgame.
Throughout Erakat's answers to Miller's questions, Erakat maintained his primary argument: change must happen, and soon. "I was not born to be a mercenary for territories," he said, discussing the need to revive the 1967 boundaries, establish a Palestinian state within those borders, and move on. Erakat noted that the Palestinians have not wasted a moment over the past 40 years of negotiations, and the Palestinians are ready to make decisions.
By Margaret Albert, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program