An Interview with Minister Saeb Erekat

Dr. Saeb Erekat is Minister of Local Government in the Palestinian National Authority. He is also head of the Steering and Monitoring Committee and headed the Palestinian negotiating team on Hebron. He spoke with Daoud Kuttab in an exclusive interview for the Palestine-Israel Journal after the signing of the Hebron Protocol.

Daoud Kuttab: Are we closer to a Palestinian State now that the Hebron agreement has been signed?
Saeb Erekat: I do not think that one can measure progress toward a Palestinian State by the Hebron agreement. I think the Protocol and Hebron should not be exaggerated, should not be blown out of proportion. Had it been done with the previous government, it would have been completed and implemented without any fuss. I think we are closer to reaching a Palestinian State, not because we have reached the Hebron Protocol agreement, but because of many other factors on the ground: the reality that if Israel wants to achieve peace in the region, the solution is a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Does the fact that President Arafat said that the second half of Israel [the Likud bloc - ed.] has agreed to a withdrawal, mean we are closer to a Palestinian State?
I do not think it is appropriate for us to start engaging in a discussion of the ideologies of the various political parties in Israel. We should concentrate on a statement by Arafat on what he wants after the Israeli elections: to try and make peace with all the Israelis. I think that the leaders in Israel, within the left and the right, should really try now to make ladders for the people to descend from up in the skies to the ground of reality, giving up concepts like no to a Palestinian State, no to Jerusalem as its capital, no to the return of refugees, because these are the real keys to a genuine peace in the region. The fact that the Likud government has accepted territorial compromise is a major change in its ideology. The difference between the Labor government and the right in Israel, the Likud, as we have heard it from them for many years, concentrated on territorial compromise. Once the Likud accepted territorial compromise, there is a change, but it should not yet be seen as the test of the real intentions of this Israeli government. What is the real test?
I think, above all, it is further redeployment, permanent-status negotiations which will commence next month [March 1997].

For 40 years Israel refused, in its own political discourse, to talk about permanent status. Now for the first time they are conducting a very deep discussion. Are you optimistic over the fact that they are at least talking about these issues?
I am glad they are talking about it, that this discussion is taking place in Israel and I hope that this discussion will take the path of realism. I hope that the Israeli people will be taught by the Israeli leaders and policy-makers what it takes to make peace with the Palestinians. On the one hand, it is good that they are discussing permanent status, it is good that they are discussing the issues of Jerusalem, a Palestinian State and so on. On the other hand, what is not good is that they seem to want to determine our future for us. They are settling the permanent-status negotiations before they start. This is very dangerous. The Israelis cannot make peace with themselves as partners.

I understand from this that you are referring to the Eitan/Beilin document and you think this is not a helpful document.1
Yes. I cannot stand guard over Mr. Eitan and Mr. Beilin, but they should realize that if they want to have peace, they have a partner called the PLO; they have a partner called Arafat; they have a partner called the Palestinian people. The issues should be negotiated between the two sides. A document like this becomes a dictate, as far as we are concerned, and they should avoid dictation. There is a difference between negotiation and dictation. If they would say that this is our starting negotiating position, it's their right. They can come to the negotiations and project any negotiating position, but they can't negotiate between themselves and tell us to take it or leave it.

You led the negotiations on the Hebron Protocol and it seems that the Palestinian position was tougher than in any other negotiation. What changed from the previous negotiations in Taba and Cairo?
I think that the world has changed. We had a new reality with these negotiations. We had a new reality with this new government. There was a big change in Israel. There was a big change in the whole peace process. I remember the first day I sat with Binyamin Netanyahu's political advisor Dore Gold back in July, 1996, after the Israeli elections. He said he came from a non-Oslo constituency. I had to tell him you are a democracy, and as a democracy you must be committed to the previous government's decisions. I do not think you have the right to be selective in what you accept and what you reject.
As to the nature of the negotiations, had the Israeli side agreed to implement the guidelines of the Hebron agreement as they were signed on September 28,1995, they would not have had all these problems. But they insisted on modifications. At one point they told us they cannot implement Hebron without these modifications. This really increased our concern, and we were more suspicious of the intentions of the Israeli government than at any time before. These were negotiations with no trust, no confidence between the two parties whatsoever. Every time we looked at each other, we wondered what each would pull out of the hat the next minute, despite our mutual need to reach the agreement. There grew in Israel the feeling that Israel needs this agreement in order to get out of the pressures that are being exerted on it internally and externally. We needed the agreement to make sure that the peace process will continue. Because we do not trust the Israeli government, we wanted a linkage between Hebron and the other issues of the agreement.

Some people say it was healthy for the negotiations to have continued because you were involved in the process of educating the second half of Israel. Do you feel the change after months of negotiations?
I think it is unfair to say that one party is educating the other. With time I realized that what negotiations mean is one's ability to bring an equation of two wins; both sides must win. As such, we need to bring a win-win situation. A win situation must take into consideration the concerns and interests of both sides, not one.

Do you think there is a win-win situation with the permanent-status talks?
They haven't started yet. I think what we have been negotiating for the past five years can be termed as appetizers. Our real negotiations are about to begin, and these are the issues that will either make or break the peace process. We need a conceptual framework for the permanent-status negotiations. The ingredients for a win-win situation are based on a two-state solution and I think that what is being discussed in Israel now is not whether the Palestinians should have a state or should not have a state, an entity or not an entity. What they are discussing is the size, the capital, what should be included, whether it should be armed or not armed. So the fundamental principle has been accepted in Israel that the basic ingredient is a two-state solution - Palestine next to Israel.
Now, if we are able to set this basic foundation for permanent-status negotiations, then first comes the question of settlements. Do the Israelis want to create another Bosnia in the next 25 years? Haven't they seen the example of the Croats, the Christian Bosnians, the Muslim Bosnians? I think settlements are not only illegal, they just can't go with peace. It's either peace or the settlements. Israel can't have both because with both, the land is torn asunder and then you are going to have two educational systems, two security systems, two legal systems, two farming systems, two road systems, etc.

That's apartheid.
That's exactly my point. That's not peace. About Jerusalem, the whole world recognizes East Jerusalem as occupied territory. And the uniqueness in Jerusalem is that no side should expand at the expense of the other side. So the Israeli side or the Jewish Quarter must not expand at the expense of the Christian and Muslim part; otherwise, there will be bloodshed. The Israelis must come to their senses and realize that for the Palestinian Christians and Muslims and for the Arab Christians and Muslims, there will be no peace whatsoever without East Jerusalem being the capital of the Palestinian State. This is a historical fact. The Israelis are practicing in Jerusalem a fait-accompli policy, an attempt to settle the issue by means of force. That will ruin the peace process. Confiscating the ID's of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is a very dangerous step. So is the extension of the boundaries of Jerusalem to include Ma'aleh Adumim to the east, and Gilo toward Bethlehem, and Giv'at Ze'ev toward Ramallah and El-Bireh. They think that with a policy of force on the ground they will have peace with us? On the contrary, if the Israeli government continues like this, we are going to have a major explosion. These issues will be responsible for pushing the Palestinians and Israelis into a state of confrontation. This is something we want to avoid by preserving and maintaining this peace process. I wrote them six letters about this matter in the three weeks after the Hebron agreement was signed, and there was no response.

And about the refugees?
For the refugees we have UN Resolution 194 and this will be the basis of negotiations. They must realize that as they have the right to return all Jews, they can't deny the Palestinians the right to return, legally or ethically. No one can deny the Palestinians the right to return to their home.

And borders?
Borders we said very clearly: the June 4, 1967, boundaries.

The Jordan Valley, they might want that for security reasons.
They can forget it. What does it mean, for security reasons? Don't they have a peace treaty with Jordan now? Why would they want the Jordan Valley after they signed a peace treaty with Jordan? The whole of the Jordanian border, as they both have said, is a border of peace and there are no enemy soldiers on either side. Security is a pretext to swallow more Palestinian land, to have more settlements.

Is the option for a binational state negotiable?
What do you mean?

I mean one state in Israel and Palestine where everybody has equal rights.
It is secular, not binational. We introduced the notion of a secular state four decades ago. To be honest with you, my personal understanding is that ethnicity, religion, language, culture have been the classical recipe for civil war all over the world. So, let's build on the basic ingredients for two separate states - with good fences, because good fences make good neighbors.

Do you foresee good economic and social interaction?
Once we have established the fences of goodwill between Palestine and Israel, it will be a priority for us to have the best relations, economic, educational, and so on, and to foster the fullest possible cooperation between a Palestinian State and the State of Israel.


1 This is an agreement between some Labor and Likud Knesset members on the Israeli position on permanent status. Among other points, it has most of the settlements under Israeli sovereignty and the Palestinian capital outside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The parties didn't reach an agreement as to whether the Palestinian entity will take the form of statehood or self-rule - ed.