Zahra Khalidi, PIJ co-managing editor, Khaled Abu Aker, a member of the PIJ editorial board and Daniel Bar-Tal, PIJ co-editor interviewed Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator and Minister of Local Government and Municipal Affairs on March 16, 2003.

What do you think of the Road Map proposed by the Quartet? Do you think it can be implemented and why the reiteration by Bush now?

I believe the Road Map can be implemented, but it needs to have defined means of implementation - timelines and monitors on the ground. We have discussed and debated the Road Map for the past six months, and I think we were able to make a marked contribution to it. These talks were concluded in November 2002 and we were promised that it would be introduced on December 20, 2002. Later, we were told it would be introduced after the Israeli elections, then we were told after the Israelis form a government and now we're told after the Iraq war. I think the level of trust between Palestinians and Israelis now is below zero, that's why we need the intervention of a third party. I believe the Quartet - that is, the US, Europe, the Russians and the UN - can be this third party. The Road Map is a comprehensive, substantial document that has all the elements and obligations emanating from the Mitchell and Tenet agreements. The political, humanitarian and economic aspects are covered, with the elements of security defined in accordance with Tenet, and the element of the cessation of settlement activities as specified in the Mitchell report.

But there were information leaks a few weeks ago that the road map is dying or will not actually be implemented.

It's very obvious, if one reads Ariel Sharon's speech in the Kenesset upon the formation of his government and its submission to the vote of confidence, that he has a totally different Road Map than that of the Quartet. Sharon's road map is one of settlements, of dictation rather than negotiations, of escalation and of destroying the Palestinian Authority. That is why, when president Bush said he would welcome and expect contributions from Israel and the Palestinians to this document, I was really alarmed. The last thing anyone wants to do now is introduce the Road Map for further discussion, because we know that Sharon will send his one hundred comments, which means we're not going to have a Road Map at the end of the day. But, early this morning I was contacted by the US State Department (this is breaking news for you) and they told me they do not intend to open the Road Map for discussion again. They told me the December 20 Road Map will stand.

This atmosphere of war might have negative implications for the Palestinian question and place more pressure on the Palestinian Authority.

This is why we need the Road Map and the monitors on the ground immediately. Sharon is exploiting the focus of the international community and the Americans on Iraq, while his forces are killing, on the average, 11 Palestinians every day, and a Palestinian home is being demolished every hour now, on top of the closures and the siege. We are being pushed towards a human catastrophe. All these issues are taking place and nobody is focusing on us. There is a dreadful silence from the international community. Thus, we could witness the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and President Arafat, and the resumption of full occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This is an option for Sharon and I think he will do it.

Do you think the US can ever be an honest broker in the area?

I don't think politics is about honesty or dishonesty, politics is about shared interests and currently the US is the only superpower on Earth. Its efforts are needed in this peace process; they can influence the Israelis. But, I believe the US, so far, has taken a cost free policy of blaming and slugging the Palestinians. Sometimes it seems that they have shifted roles, making it appear as if the Palestinians are occupying Israel, making incursions into Israeli cities and targetting or assassinating Israeli leaders! The US seems to undermine the fact that we are the last people under occupation and that Israel is the last country on Earth that still possesses the title of occupying power.

There has been a lot of pressure on the Palestinians, especially over the past year, to start reforms and appoint a prime minister. How do you see all these international pressures relating to this issue?

Well, pressure is an instrument of politics, we live with it. As long as we have an international system based on interests, pressure in many forms will always be used. As to Palestinian reform, I don't think it was due to external pressure but internal pressure - it was the Palestinian people who demanded the reforms. The Palestinians wanted to see accountability and transparency in all fields and it was the Palestinians who wanted to see an improved functioning of the Palestinian Authority. The same thing is applicable to the office of prime minister. There are some of us who have been calling for the office of prime minister since 1995. Israel refused to include the idea of a prime minister and refused to empower the Palestinian Authority with foreign affairs because they said; "No you're not a state" - they refused to let us be responsible for negotiations. So if I go and negotiate now, I would be going on behalf of the PLO, and not on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. If I sign an agreement with any donor countries, I sign it on behalf of the PLO and not the Palestinian Authority. People have short memories and tend not to read the specifications in the agreement signed with the Israelis in 1995, which made the Palestinian Authority dependent on the PLO for its foreign relations and its negotiations. All the reforms have been taken in accordance with Palestinian interests. To be honest with you, I don't think Sharon cares if the Palestinians are ruled by Attilla the Hun or the Boy Scouts of Jericho. But Sharon is using the issue of reforms despite the fact that he doesn't care.

Going a little bit back in history, do you think that the flaw is actually in the Oslo agreement, the fact that there are areas A, B and C, or is it something to do with the performance of the Authority?

I don't think that we're mistake-free in the Palestinian Authority, we have made mistakes, but, in reality, the deficiency in the peace process is the responsibility of those Israeli governments that never honoured timelines, or signed agreements, and who said many times that "time is not holy". I believe this is the flaw and the deficiency, that's the first point. Secondly, the continuation of settlement activities on the Israeli side. Every government, whether it is Labour or Likud, has settlements as its national objective and priority. I believe that in the first eight years we honoured all our commitments as Palestinians. We're not the ones who missed the 1999 deadline for the completion of the negotiations, we're not the ones who are continuing with settlement activities and, I should remind the world, even as far as violence is concerned, it was Baruch Goldstein who innitiated the mass killings and terror attacks when he massacred 29 Palestinians in al-Haram al-Ibrahimi in Hebron.
Anyway, recalling history is not useful, I don't think the flaw is in Oslo, I don't think there is anything wrong with Oslo or the peace process, on the contrary, it's a constituted, gradual approach. Had it been honoured, it would have lead the way, but those who did not honour the Oslo Accords in the Israeli governments, I think, are the ones responsible. And the worst flaw in these governments was when Ehud Barak decided to become Sharon's campaign manager and said, "I don't have a partner on the other side and I offered the Palestinians things that they could not say no to," which is absolutely not the truth.

Do you think the PA was mistaken again, here, in not disclosing to the people what actually happened at Camp David?

No, no, it was not mistaken, we're no match. I'm no match for Ehud Barak, if its going to be the Congress, the Senate, the New York Times, the media, I'm no match for Ehud Barak, let's face it - I come out of peace conferences, talking, showing whatever I can, showing documents and then Ehud Barak will say one thing - five senators will take it and that's it - I don't stand a chance against him. I agreed, I personally agreed with President Clinton and Ehud Barak that we would not point fingers at each other, that we would not score points, we would not blame each other, that we were not going to play the blame game in Camp David. In the evening we issued a statement to this effect. One hour after we left, I was saying that we came a long way - it was not a failure at Camp David. They were saying that we were offered something - I asked President Clinton last year when he came to Tel-Aviv, "Why did you do that Mr, President? I was with President Arafat when he told you, 'I accept your parameters,' on January 2, 2001, eighteen days before your departure from the Whitehouse. He told you we accept your parameters with the following clarifications - why did you say that Arafat rejected them?" He answered me, "I was told if I don't say this the peace camp in Israel will cease to exist." But you know the truth or not the truth is not the issue here, it's the impression these people in the US and in Israel can leave if they want to start a smear or a discreditation campaign against President Arafat and against the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian Authority.

Can the creation of the prime minister's position create a break through in relations?

Well, the prime minister is the choice of President Arafat, he's the choice of the Palestinian people and we have the prime minister's office in order to re-engage with the Americans and the Israelis. It is not a secret.

So this will open doors?

We hope so, but I don't think that will happen if Sharon continues business as usual. You came on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho today and you saw mountains being moved, which is part of the expansion of greater Jerusalem. If he continues with the faits accomplis on the ground, and business as usual as far as settlement activity is concerned, I don't think we will have a vision of a state to talk about in 2005, the target date of the Road Map.

In addition, the Israelis are continuing to build the separation wall.

The separation wall, settlement activities, land expropriation, the creation of facts on the ground - if Israel wants to make peace one day - a genuine lasting peace; they know that building settlements and apartheid walls do not go together with peace. They know that stealing Palestinian water aquifers and killing the livelihood of Palestinian farmers do not go together with peace. If they want to have peace one day they have to make the choice! Faits accomplis and dictation, or negotiations.
They know that the peace we seek is a peace that will have Israel withdraw to the June 1967 borders; and that creating facts on the ground, creating settlements is the act of those who want future generations of Palestinians and Israelis to be unable to make peace.

Is this possible with a Sharon government or will we need to wait for a peace-oriented leadership?

Well, I'm not an Israeli voter, I don't interfere in Israel's business. If the Israelis want to make peace, we want to make peace with all Israelis, not with this party or that party. But they should know that we have already signed an agreement with Israel saying that the peace process will be based on land for peace, that is, Israel's withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 borders. The purpose of the peace process is to implement resolutions 242 and 338, it's very obvious. Now Sharon is trying to change the terms of reference, and this will not happen, or change the Madrid formula and this will not happen either. There is only one equation for peace and that is termination of the Israeli occupation. That is the shortest way to peace and security.

How can the Palestinans assure the security needs of the Israelis?

By resuming a meaningful peace process, by the Israelis declaring that they don't wish to be the occupiers any more, after 35 years, by stopping their political blindness towards the suffering of 3.6 million Palestinians, who are being pushed to the brink of a human catastrophe. When Israeli mothers and fathers realize that 50 percent of Palestinian children below the age of five are facing malnutrition, 45 percent of Palestinian women of child bearing age are anemic and that the whole Palestinian infrastructure sector is being destroyed, setting Palestinians back 60 years in time. When the Israelis realize what their government is doing to Palestinians, maybe and only maybe, will they then stand up to their government and we will have hope.

Do you think that there is a need for intervention by multi-national forces?

Absolutely, I believe that we need a third party, we need international forces on the ground, we need monitoring forces on the ground - call it whatever you want, but we need the third party dimension.

What function can they fulfill?

To watch what goes on, on the ground, and to tell the international community who is complying with the agreements and understandings and who is not complying. To have my word against their word, that's different. I'm not talking about the example of Hebron, I'm talking about the example that is provided for in the Road Map - to monitor implementation - to stand up and say who is implementing or not implementing it - to vouch for both sides, so they don't put my word against the Israelis' word, because as I told you, I don't stand a chance.

Do you think you are talking about genuine peace? You are talking about being partners with the Israelis.

We will. We will make peace one day. I did not wake up one morning and say to myself my conscience is aching and I want to recognize the State of Israel. Israelis did not wake up one morning and feel that their conscience was aching because they wanted to make peace with the Palestinians. Occupation will not produce peace, settlements will not produce peace and one day Palestinians and Israelis will make peace and there will be a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its captial, next to the State of Israel, living side by side. This is not a dream any more. I'm one of those people who has envisioned life after peace, we have drafted three chapters of the permanent status treaty. The forces in Israel today who are trying to coerce, manipulate, exploit and use the situation in order to push the peace process out of the minds of the Israelis cannot remain in government, because what is happening out there is the tip of the iceberg of what may engulf Palestinians and Israelis if Sharon declares the peace process dead.

After September 11, Arafat could have played the role of the dove of peace, and he did. He started out very well, by donating blood on TV, by making a speech to the Palestinian people, the point is Sharon somehow was able to snatch it away from him.

Sharon managed to hijack September 11? He did, and Sharon used September 11 to increase Israeli state terror against Palestinians. It wasn't anything to do with us or our fault. President Arafat was the first to denounce and condemn September 11, the Palestinian people stood as one against September 11 and the Palestinians more than any other people on earth felt the agony and suffering of those victims and their families in New York and Washington, because we know the meaning of suffering, we know the meaning of losing loved ones. We stood up against September 11, we continue to stand up against September 11 and Sharon should not be allowed to hijack September 11. There is no moral ground for Bush or anybody else to speak of fighting international terror while they continue to reward the Israeli occupation, Israeli agression and Israeli violations against the Palestinian people.

Concerning the municipal elections - why have they been postponed?

Because of the Israeli reoccupation, that's the only reason. We have prepared ourselves, we have formed an international steering committee - the US, Norway, Canada, Japan and the EU - everything was on track, but no election can be carried out under Israeli occupation. Ninety days from Israel's withdrawal from our towns, villages and refugee camps, we will have municipal elections.

What is demanded now, how can we go back to resume the peace process itself ?

Start implementing the Road Map.

What, do you think, is the first step?

For Bush to declare the timelines, the mechanism of implementation and the monitors on the ground for the immediate implemenation of the Road Map.

They might say the ball is in your court as Palestinians.

There will be a Palestinian Prime Minister appointed very soon, an empowered, authoritative, credible prime minister.

Aren't you afraid Sharon will go back to his old security demands?

I can tell you that Sharon's only end game is to destroy the peace process and to seek pretexts and excuses for not re-engaging. Sharon has chosen settlements and not peace.

And the Americans?

So far American policy has been a cost free policy, which is very unfortunate.