The impact of Arabic satellite news will of course vary from country to country. If it hastened the departure of the presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, its sole victim to date in Palestine is Saeb Erekat, who sat across the table from Israeli negotiators for year after year after year of The Peace Process. The Process appeared to bite the dust about the same instant as the former university professor, holder of a Ph.D. in Peace Studies. He was done in by al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based channel that trumpeted leaked documents from Erekat’s Negotiations Affairs Department of the Palestinian National Authority.
The “Palestinian Papers” revealed somewhat less than al-Jazeera claimed – the channel’s effort to embarrass the Palestinian authority being a good deal more obvious than the revelations the channel trumpeted. But there was embarrassment enough for Erekat, who acknowledged the leak came form his office and resigned. “Palestine will not have tanks,” he says of where a future state would draw its authority. “Palestine needs to be seeded with officials who are dedicated to transparency, accountability and the rule of law.”
He remains in his Jericho office through March, the television in the corner tuned to al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned alternative to al-Jazeera. Cascading from it are the images from Libya, Yemen and Bahrain that some assume will change the dynamic between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is not an assumption shared by Erekat.
“Youth power will be used against dictators,” he says. Ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, however, can only come about through negotiations. Erekat sees no role for the spectacular massing of nonviolent throngs – “We tried that 20 years ago,” he says – to coerce a softening on the Israeli side, which he blames for the collapse of the latest round of Washington-sponsored talks last year, after mere weeks. Reports in the Israeli media indicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under international pressure to at least appear interested, may propose not a final agreement but a proposal offering Palestinians a provisional state on perhaps half their occupied territory. (See inside the Palestinian elections.)
Erekat’s own plan: Jam the Israelis through The Quartet – the four parties designated since the 2002 Madrid conference as mediators: The United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. Their representatives were gathering this week in Brussels and, in advance of the meeting, Erekat says he would push them to publish “parameters” of a final agreement. This would be the points agreed in 2008 between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who preceded Netanyahu. Both have said they were close to a deal – Olmert in a new book – before either events or Abbas’ hesitation overtook them.
Erekat says the Quartet should then pointedly invite Netanyahu and Abbas to finish the job. “Abu Mazen I’m sure would say yes. If Netanyahu says no, the 75% of Israelis who don’t believe they have a ‘partner’ will call him to task,” Erekat says, referring to public opinion polls showing Israeli skepticism of Palestinian sincerity. “If he says yes, he’ll have to change his coalition.” Right-wing parties dominate the coalition Netanyahu assembled to govern.
The most vivid of the “Palestinian Papers” featured verbatim exchanges across the table of closed negotiations. In broad terms, the impression was of Palestinian negotiators notably more inclined to compromise than their Israeli counterparts. But the transcripts could also be read as evidence of how far apart the two parties remained. Each side was obstinate on two of the largest Israeli settlements: Ma’ale Adumim, a massive suburb of 34,000 plopped atop the Judean Hills just east of Jerusalem, and Ariel, half as large but built expressly to impede the contiguity of any future Palestinian state, which it does, standing between Ramallah and Nablus.
Erekat speaks not of the difficult specifics of either, but rather of abstractions – numbers, percentages. In the face-to-face 2008 talks, Olmert’s final flourish was a map. The map showed a Palestine restored to its borders before the 1967 Six-Day War that led to the Israeli occupation, but for adjustments that would bring the largest Israeli settlements into Israel proper. In exchange for these settlements, most of which were nearly on the ’67 border, Israel offered uninhabited land to Palestine in exchange. On Olmert’s map, the swaps came to 6.5% of Palestinian territory. Abbas’s last counter-offer called for just 1.9%. (See pictures from the Palestinian “Day of Rage,” one year ago.)
“Leave the bracket open,” Erekat says, dispensing advice to the Quartet about how to proceed. “What’s between 1.9 and 6.5, that’s the business of Palestinians and Israelis.”
He makes it sound easy. “Everything is done in the negotiation,” he insists, referring to the other outstanding issues, from security to water – even the thorniest, most personal question of whether Palestinians pushed out of their homes have the right to return to them. “Everything is done. What you need to specify is, what’s the percentage of swaps? What’s the number of refugees who are going back to Israel? Over how many years?”
“Negotiations are over,” he says. “It’s time for decisions.”
And Gaza? Perhaps 40% of Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, under the rule of the Islamist militant party Hamas, winner of a 2006 election that precipitated a violent split in Palestinian governance. The secular Fatah Party governs the West Bank, and represents only itself in negotiations; it would also be the first target of a budding youth movement that threatens to take to the streets. The split pre-occupies ordinary Palestinians. But Erekat waves a hand. “If I have an end-game agreement with Israel,” he says, “Hamas is gone.”