Q&A: Maen Rashid Areikat
The Palestinian ambassador to Washington sees a role for the American Jewish community in creating a Palestinian state
Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat is a skilled and patient negotiator who represents the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington. A robust, dark-skinned man with salt-and-pepper hair and black-rimmed architect’s glasses, he is a protégé of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who supervised Areikat’s work as director-general of the Negotiations Affairs Department of the PLO. The two men are said to be temperamentally similar and personally close. With his direct manner and relaxed but forceful presence, he seems more like a businessman than a diplomat. It is easy to imagine him traveling through international airports hammering out partnership deals for Hewlett-Packard or SAP, in Europe one day and Dubai the next.
Born in Jericho, on the West Bank, raised under Israeli military occupation, and educated in Arizona (where he received an undergraduate degree in finance and then an MBA), Areikat toggles back and forth between the somber acknowledgment of competing narratives of nationhood and oppression, sharp political gossip, and more muted versions of the fiery speeches about colonization and dispossession that made the secular Palestinian national cause a favorite among Western students in the 1970s, in the days before Islamists seized the mantle of resistance.
Yet for all the fluidity of his style and the intelligence of his presentation, there is something insubstantial about Areikat that seems less like a personal failing than a product of the fact that his title is a well-meaning lie: He is an ambassador without a country, the emissary of a dream-state without borders that has commanded and frustrated the imagination of the world for over 40 years. The deferral of the Palestinian national dream through war and peace, international conferences and agreements, self-inflicted wounds, settlement and occupation, year after year and decade after decade, has become one of the defining characteristics of a dream that refuses to die yet resists being born. The delivery date is always pushed back another year or two, and then another year. Arguments about whether the failure lies with Israel or the Palestinians, Arafat, Sharon, Clinton, Bush or Obama, meddling Iranians, Likud hardliners, Baruch Goldstein or Hamas, the Holocaust, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, or the Sykes Picot agreement of 1916 have lost their savor even for the bitterest ideologues. The world won’t stand for it any longer, but then the world moves on to something else. With the West Bank ruled by the Israel Defense Forces and Gaza ruled by Hamas, the Palestinian people seem more divided now than at any time since their national movement began.
Areikat displays excellent control over his body language and enjoys playing games. When I arrive to meet him in the lounge of a busy tourist hotel in midtown Manhattan, I find him seated with a glass of water in front of him and his jacket and tie slung over the back of the opposite chair. He watches me, curious to see whether I will ask his permission, move it myself, or sit down and then lean forward for the rest of the interview. When I move his jacket to a nearby chair, he smiles and then stands up to shake my hand, while continuing to talk on his cell phone to Ramallah in Arabic about his meeting with the editorial board of the New York Times. I set out the instruments of my trade on the table and listen in on his conversation until he is done.
For decades many Jews in Israel and America denied that there was such a thing as a Palestinian people. I think that most people in our community today see that as a shameful thing. However even as the Jewish community has stopped for the most part propagating this kind of false and insulting narrative, we wonder why there is not a similar recognition on the part of Palestinians of our deep historical and emotional connection to our national homeland.
One hundred years of struggle over that piece of land that was called Palestine produced a lot of misconceptions and misperceptions. We witnessed the rise of national movements that were struggling to create homelands for their own people, and neither one wanted to acknowledge the presence of the other. I think of the early Zionist slogans of a land without a people for a people without a land, all the books and the papers and the statements that were made by the early Zionists and the Israelis after the creation of the state of Israel, the denial of the existence of the Palestinian people, and then later the denial by the Palestinians of the existence of the state of Israel, that they have to go back to where they came from. I remember former Prime Minister Golda Meir saying that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people in the early ’70s. I remember Palestinians saying that the only Jews in the land of Palestine are going to be Palestinian Jews. I think the bloody conflict brought leaders on both sides to their senses. We have seen at least, from the Palestinian side, since 1988, a clear acceptance of the existence of the State of Israel.
I wrote a cover story for the Atlantic about the Ra’is, Yasser Arafat right after he died, and I interviewed all the Palestinian leaders who were close to Arafat, as well as the leading Israeli, American, and international policymakers who dealt with him. One story that I heard many times is how the Camp David negotiations fell apart when Arafat would not acknowledge that there was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
This was used by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren in his recent op-ed in the New York Times, and I just want to know, how did he base his statement. On what information?
Bill Clinton tells the story, too. I also interviewed Madeleine Albright and Ehud Barak about it, and they said the same thing. They remembered that Clinton was very angry. He said, “Look, it was in the Encyclopedia Britannica, how can you say it was not there?” And Arafat said, “There was never a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It didn’t exist. It’s a myth. Maybe it was in Hebron. Maybe the Jews came from Saudi Arabia.” You know the kind of nonsense he used to talk.
People forget that Chairman Arafat was the first Palestinian leader to take the major risk of signing an agreement with Israel that recognized Israel’s right to exist. I don’t think there would have been any other Palestinian leader who would have had the courage to do that. And they just, in a moment of rage because you know he didn’t go along with a plan that was submitted to him at Camp David, decide to make him the bad guy.
OK. Now that we are sitting across the table here in New York 10 years later, under completely different circumstances, let me ask you this: Was there ever a Jewish temple in Jerusalem?
I’m not a historian.
I have the reference right here from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Is it wrong?
I’m not a historian. What are you trying to get to? That Jews were present then?
President Abbas in his meeting with the leaders of the American Jewish community in June said that yes, the Jews were in the Middle East, and that one-third of the Quran talks about Jews.
Are the people who say they’re Israeli Jews today related to the people who were Jews in the time of the Quran?
It’s for historians to establish the link. I believe many Jews who lived at one point in that land continue to live in that land, and their descendants stayed in that land.
So, today’s Palestinians are the real Jews?
Everywhere in the world, Jews follow the nationality and citizenship of the country where they live. In the United States, you have American Jews, who live in the United States. You have French Jews. And this was the original argument between us and the Jews. Why can’t you be Palestinian Jews?
Is Judaism simply a religion, or are Jews also a people—like Kurds or Armenians?
That is something you have to work out for yourselves. At one point, we believed that Jews are followers of religion, and not a nation and a people, and I’ll tell you why. In order to be one people, one nation, you have to be homogenous. Look at Jews all over the world, you see American Jews who are blond and with green-blue eyes. You see Yemeni Jews who are dark like me with brown eyes and brown hair—not brown anymore for me—and you see French and Russian Jews who are a mixture of this and that. So, basically a lot of historians on the Palestinian side and the Arab side say, “Well, if they were a people, one nation, they would be homogenous, 90 percent alike except for 10 not-alike, as we Palestinians are.” Some of us still make the same arguments of the ’60s and the ’70s: “No, they are not a nation, they are the followers of a faith, they should live in every country as citizens of that country.”
That approach didn’t work out so well for us in Europe.
I think you have been very much influenced by the Holocaust. And the thing that my Jewish listeners, audience, or readers should understand is that we Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust. As a matter of fact, Palestinians, in the early years of the Jewish migration to Palestine, tried to help the Jewish immigrants as much as possible, to make them feel at home.
In our community, we’re taught that the toleration of Jews in most Muslim empires was greater than it was in Christian Europe. But we also hear that, for example, the other day the head of the Palestine National Council, Salim Zanoun, said that the Palestinian people can never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
I said it yesterday!
Why did you say that?
Israel is a political establishment that claims to represent Jews all over the world. I very much doubt that Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu represent every Jew in the world. I know there are Jews who don’t agree with Netanyahu.
You know the saying: Two Jews, three opinions.
But what I want to say about tolerance is that the Jewish-Muslim relationship enjoyed much more years of peace and tranquility than the Christian-Jewish relationship or the Muslim-Christian relationship. My grandfather was a partner with a Jewish man in a bakery shop in west Jerusalem. When he was—when my grandfather left in 1948, he left everything, he left his home, he left his bakery, he left everything, but he was a partner. My mother used to tell me stories about how they lived in peace and harmony. That’s why a lot of people argue that the politicization of Judaism led to the friction and the conflict with the Palestinians. In the beginning we used to say, “We are not against Jews or Judaism.” We were against Zionism as a political theory.
So, explain why it’s impossible for the Palestinian people to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
We have no problem whatsoever with what Israel calls themselves. Israel can call themselves “The Great Empire of the Jewish People.” But don’t ask me to recognize that.
Why not? You want us to recognize the validity of your narrative of Palestinian people-hood.
We are still negotiating an end to this conflict. Let’s say that tomorrow the Palestinian leadership comes out and says, “OK, we’re ready to recognize the Jewishness of the state.” What implications would that have, immediately, on the Palestinians? You know that in our view the refugee problem is the crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today we have 6.5 million registered refugees out of 10 or 10.5 million Palestinians. One out of six refugees in the world is Palestinian. By accepting Israel’s claim now, that they are a Jewish state, we are telling the Israelis: Forget about the refugees, forget about their plight, no right of return, no U.N. General Assembly resolution 194; we are giving up the refugee issue, we are taking it off the table before we even started negotiating.
Secondly, you know that there are between 18 and 20 percent non-Jews who are living in Israel, who are mostly Palestinians, and who are part of the Palestinian people. By accepting the Israeli plan that they are a Jewish state, we are undermining the rights of this minority, who are already suffering discrimination at the hands of the Israeli authorities.
Doesn’t the U.N. partition resolution on which you base your own national claims for a Palestinian state already recognize Israel as a state for the Jews—a Jewish state?
The partition plan of 1947, which I talked about yesterday at my speech at Columbia, did give 54 percent, 55 percent to a Jewish state, and 45 percent to an Arab state. The Arabs rejected that. Israel launched war and won the war, and they expanded their territory from 55 to 78, but the only time in my memory that a Jewish state was really mentioned was in the partition plan 181. Does Israel want us to go back to that? Fine.
So, you refuse to call Israel a Jewish state, but if they gave you more land it would be OK?
We’d be getting double the amount of land. Who would refuse that? But do you really want to turn that now into a political maneuver by trying to put forth a condition that you know in advance the Palestinians are not going to accept? The real issues are: ending the conflict, ending the Israeli military occupation, allowing the Palestinians to be independent, and providing security for Israel.
When you imagine a future Palestinian state, do you imagine it being a place where Jews, if they wish to become Palestinian citizens, could own property, vote in elections, and practice their religion freely?
I remember in the mid-’90s, the late [PLO official] Faisal Husseini said repeatedly “OK, if Israelis choose to stay in a future Palestinian state, they are more than welcome to do that. But under one condition: They have to respect and obey Palestinian laws, they cannot be living as Israelis. They have to respect Palestinian laws and abide by them.” When Faisal Husseini died, basically no Palestinian leader has publicly supported the notion that they can stay.
What we are saying is the following: We need to separate. We have to separate. We are in a forced marriage. We need to divorce. After we divorce, and everybody takes a period of time to recoup, rebound, whatever you want to call it, we may consider dating again.
So, you think it would be necessary to first transfer and remove every Jew—
Absolutely. No, I’m not saying to transfer every Jew, I’m saying transfer Jews who, after an agreement with Israel, fall under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state.
Any Jew who is inside the borders of Palestine will have to leave?
Absolutely. I think this is a very necessary step, before we can allow the two states to somehow develop their separate national identities, and then maybe open up the doors for all kinds of cultural, social, political, economic exchanges, that freedom of movement of both citizens of Israelis and Palestinians from one area to another. You know you have to think of the day after.
I’ve been traveling to the region since I was a child, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that in the 1970s and 1980s Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs knew each other much better than they do now.
Following the Israeli occupation in 1967, the police station in my hometown of Jericho was headed by an Israeli police commander. I remember one time I went with two of my friends to a nearby Israeli settlement in Jericho, back in the ‘80s, to visit some Israelis who used to come to the shop and buy things from us. We’d have coffee and tea. The struggle was not crystallized yet.
I remember when I traveled to Europe in the late ’70s, and to the United States in the early ’80s, yes, we thought of ourselves as Palestinians, but we were traveling with Jordanian passports. Publicly we are Jordanians, but deep inside we are Palestinians.
That’s how many Jews feel about the passports that they carry.
I understand. When I talk to people about Israel’s obsession with security, I say I believe it’s genuine. I know that the Israelis exaggerate it. But I believe in many aspects it is genuine. I understand the horrific experience that Jews had during the Holocaust, but then I sit and say—
Your father didn’t do it.
Exactly. I am not the one. It was Germany. Germany was part of the Western community. I don’t want to get into religion, but they were Christians, not Muslims. Why should I pay the price for the political movement called Zionism, which said, “It’s time to reclaim parts of Palestinian territory that at one point were home for the kingdom of David, of Israel”—which you and I know was concentrated in the northern part of the West Bank. It never was in Jerusalem, it never was on the coast, it never was in Hebron.
Of course it was in Jerusalem.
The City of David is right there.
No, I mean, it was from Shechem to the outskirts of Jerusalem. It was never the Palestine that they claim.
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