Q&A: Maen Rashid Areikat
The Palestinian ambassador to Washington sees a role for the American Jewish community in creating a Palestinian state
But nevertheless, we felt that we are being asked to pay the price for crimes that we have not committed. This, somehow, is what people who listen or read what I have to say need to understand. There was a great sense of injustice. Believe me, there is nothing worse than feeling that injustice was done to you. There is nothing worse than that. Nothing worse than the feeling when you are under a military occupation and the soldier says to you, “Sit down, you dog.” Kicks you, humiliates you, humiliates your mother, humiliates your sister. Nothing can injure your dignity and pride more than that.
Let’s talk about the negotiations. One of the things that I always notice is that the Palestinians have continuity. You have one team, it stays together, and you see the same people decade after decade: Yasser Abd Rabbo, Saeb Erekat, Nabil Shaath. On the Israeli side they have a whole new team of people every two years with a whole new set of briefing books. Is this a problem?
For us or for them?
I would think the advantages would be on your side.
Exactly. Some of the people on our side maybe think they are indispensable. I don’t know exactly what is their mentality, but the fact that they have been at the helm has saved us a lot of time and a lot of effort. By establishing the Negotiation Support Unit, by creating all these manuals, negotiation manuals, anybody can come and just open this manual and it reflects the Palestinian position, the international position, the Israeli position, the U.N. position, etc. I remember four or five years ago when I was at the Negotiations Affairs Department and in charge of the support unit, the Israelis said, “We want to emulate and copy the unit.” I was joking with an Israeli friend, I said, “Well, whisper in the foreign minister’s ears; if they want our expertise, we are willing to provide it.”
Is it your sense that Israeli politics is very unstable?
Absolutely. The Israelis call on the Palestinians to adhere to the signed agreements, respect their obligations, which surprisingly we have done a better job of doing than the Israelis have, ever since President Abbas became the president. But the Israelis, every time there’s a new prime minister, or every time a party takes over, everyone has their own interpretation of the agreements, and it’s a major problem for us. Everybody wants to start from scratch. Nothing is documented. Nothing is written. Is that an Israeli tactic? Because as long as they haven’t accepted a written document, they aren’t obliged?
There’s an article in the New York Review of Books about Salam Fayyad by Nathan Thrall—did you read it?
I saw a copy, yes, “Our Man in Palestine”? I don’t know if I brought it with me, I wanted to read it but no, I haven’t.
It’s a very interesting and complex article. One point the author makes is that peace negotiations with Israel are deeply unpopular among Palestinians in the West Bank, and that the government of Salam Fayyad lacks any broad popular support and is forced to engage in severe repression: arrests, often without trial; breaking up public meetings; beatings and torture; and other behavior that turns people further against the government. This is a cycle that is very dangerous. And it raises the question, when you start looking at a government that doesn’t control Gaza and has become unpopular in the West Bank, and that doesn’t have an electoral mandate from its own people, what does a signed agreement of any kind with you mean? Do you think that’s a legitimate concern for people to have?
That things would turn against the government?
Any government that signed an agreement that didn’t allow hundreds of thousands of refugees back—conditions that you know that the Israelis would never allow—would be broadly unpopular, and an agreement with you would be founded on sand.
We have to present any future agreement to a referendum that all Palestinians would have a chance to vote for or against. You cannot reach a final agreement with Israel on such sensitive, important issues without having the Palestinians all over the world to have a chance to vote.
OK. So, if I do the math right, there are 6 to 6.5 million registered refugees out of 10 million Palestinians—
They all would vote against? No. Because some of the registered refugees are in better conditions than you and me. Their answer is determined by who is asking the question. If it’s somebody foreign, it’s for a survey, polls, they all want to go back. And even some passerby who is not Palestinian will tell you, “Oh, I want to go back to Palestine too!” But if you want to ask me about how pragmatic is the idea of having all refugees return, I will tell you for many reasons, it will not be the 6.5 million registered refugees.
Our job as a Palestinian leadership is threefold: One, Israel has to somehow acknowledge its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. Not in a way that could be viewed by them or by the world as an admission of historical wrongdoing that could nullify or negate the existence of Israel. The Israelis say, “How can we acknowledge and say that we are responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem?” Because that would automatically mean that the creation of the State of Israel was wrong. We tell them, “Listen, don’t look at it from that angle. Don’t look at it as a win-lose situation. Look at it as a win-win situation; it will put an end to a longstanding issue.”
Like President Abbas yesterday said in his interview with Israeli radio and I think to TV, he said, “An end to historical claims.” That means after the establishment of the Palestinian state, West Bank, Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, a just resolution of the conflict, there will be no additional claims by the Palestinians.
The Israelis don’t believe you.
They have to believe me. Because there is nothing I can give them but my word and my sincere and genuine intentions. Israel is the stronger party in the equation. Palestinians have no way of forcing Israel to accept anything. We cannot force the Israelis to lift the closure of a village in the West Bank. Do you think we would be able to force Israel to do things that they don’t want to do?
We are telling the Israelis, “You have to accept the right of return in principle. Then we will sit and discuss the implementation mechanisms.”
If someone said to you, “You must accept in principle the idea that me and my family will come and live in your house, which used to be our house, and then after you accept this basic principle, then we can discuss the specifics of our new arrangement. Maybe my whole family moves in, or maybe just my mother will come live in your kitchen,” you would say, “No thanks.”
Listen, my answer to that is very simple. It’s amazing how we Palestinians, who are under occupation, denied our basic freedom and human rights, are the ones who are urging the Israelis to think about the day after a peaceful agreement, not to think of it in the context of continued conflict and continued violence.
As a member of Fatah, you know what happened to Fatah members in Gaza after Hamas took over in their coup there, what they did to people you knew. The Israelis look at that and say, “Hey, if Hamas does these terrible things to their own brothers, surely we must build the highest wall out of iron we can, 100 feet high at least, and let them stay there, on the other side.”
You know that the issue of the rockets is really exaggerated. You know that. Israel knows that.
They’re rockets …
I’m not condoning the firing of rockets. All that I’m saying is, these rockets hurt the Palestinians more than they hurt Israel. And we as a Palestinian leadership have adopted a strategic option of non-violent resistance.
How long do you imagine the government of President Abbas would last if there was no Israeli military presence in the West Bank? In Gaza, Hamas decided, “OK, we’re going to take it”—and they took it.
Let me say this. I think the majority of the Palestinians, the mainstream Palestinians, are opposed to what Hamas is doing. But because of the fact that there is a lack of progress in the peace process, Hamas and other opposition groups are getting stronger and stronger.
The only answer to Hamas, and to other groups on both sides who are opposed to any peaceful reconciliation and resolution of the conflict, is to push this process forward to try to realize an agreement that will allow the Palestinians to establish their state and live side by side with Israel in peace and security. As long as there is no political horizon, as long as there are no prospects of peaceful resolution, the people will continue to think that resistance, violence, will pay off.
There was a phrase that many of Chairman Arafat’s close advisers used again and again, which was that Arafat’s main political goal was to continue to hold the Palestinian national decision in his hand. And in his relations with the Arab countries, with the Russians, with America, he would play them off each other, so that he would in the end be standing as the representative of Fatah and the PLO with the sole right to make decisions for the Palestinian people.
Which we call protecting the independent Palestinian decision. We came under a lot of pressure, as I alluded earlier, from our surroundings, it’s not secret. It took us a lot in order to convince the Arabs that we have to be in charge of our own destiny, even today.
President Abbas a few months ago made a very strong statement about Iranian meddling in Palestinian internal affairs through their backing of Hamas, which does not recognize the authority of President Abbas, controls Gaza, and takes orders from outside. What this means is that Iran has fractured your ability to speak for your people.
I agree with you. Strangely enough, Osama Bin Laden tried to claim ownership of the Palestinian cause. As a matter of fact, the only leader who was attacked by name by [al-Qaida leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri was President Mahmoud Abbas. By name! That tells you that as long as this conflict, this wound, is open, many extremists will try to exploit it to their advantage. Do you really believe that Iran is really planning to attack Israel because they want to protect the Palestinians and liberate Palestine? Iran is building itself up to become a strong regional power to reckon with in the Gulf.
People worry, “OK, if we open the door to a Palestinian state right now, Iran will come in through that door.”
Today, both sides have influence over their destinies. Five years down the road, with all the meddling that we are seeing from countries in the region and even outside the region, the Palestinians and the Israelis may very soon find themselves in the position that they cannot make the peace that they are aspiring for today.
Do you think the fact that America seems weaker in the region and Iran seems stronger gives motivation to both Israelis and Palestinians to make a deal? There’s a common friend and a common enemy.
I don’t look at Iran as being the common enemy of Palestinians and Israelis. I don’t personally view Iran as an enemy, to be honest with you.
Their people were throwing your people off tall buildings in Gaza City.
It’s done by Palestinians, not Iranians. I blame the Palestinians who do this, maybe despite the fact that they may be receiving funding by Iran. I blame Hamas for their excesses and for the actions they took after they took control of Gaza. But I don’t view Iran as an enemy per se. My only criticism of Iran is the fact that they are interfering in our internal affairs so that reconciliation and unity remains elusive.
Do you think the American Jewish community has tried to pressure the Obama Administration in a way that has made it harder to reach a deal?
I would like to see the American Jewish community play a different role in this whole issue. I think they should support the efforts of the administration to reach resolution between Israel and the Palestinians. They also have to play a role with Israel. I’m not saying to convince them to be more flexible, but to try to make Israel focus on the long-term issues. Because if a two-state solution is not going to be viable soon because of Israeli actions—settlements, what-have-you—and if the apartheid-like treatment of the Palestinians of the West Bank is not sustainable from a Jewish point of view, because many Jews in the world will not accept their mother state to be called an apartheid state because they have fought against apartheid, they have been subjected to discrimination themselves, what alternative is left for us? A bi-national state?
Some people in both of our communities believe that a bi-national state is the right answer.
But again, although some Palestinians are calling for that, we have to be careful, because it does not automatically mean that Israel will yield support and give the Palestinians equal rights. They could accept one state, a bi-national state, and continue to discriminate against the Palestinians. So, if it’s truly democratic, equal, with equal rights, one man one vote, fine. But I don’t think it will contribute to Israeli efforts to crystallize their identity as a homeland for Jews.
As PLO we are committed to a two-state solution because we know it’s the only way that can provide Israelis and Palestinians the opportunity to build their own national identities in a separate manner before again they can explore venues of cooperation.
I think the Jewish community in the Diaspora should start making wake-up calls to Israel. Because the current Israeli leadership is fixated on short-term objectives.
All Israeli leadership is fixated on short-term objectives.
At least this one is. They are playing tactical games about the Jewishness of the state, and the oath of loyalty, and the referendum, and they are not really looking to tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They are not being visionary, and in that regard, they are undermining the long-term interests of the State of Israel more than anybody else in the region.
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