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Q&A: Maen Rashid Areikat

The Palestinian ambassador to Washington sees a role for the American Jewish community in creating a Palestinian state

David Samuels
October 29, 2010
Ambassador Areikat.(H. Darr Beiser/USA Today via PLO Mission the United States)
Ambassador Areikat.(H. Darr Beiser/USA Today via PLO Mission the United States)

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?

Were they?

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.

Continue reading: rockets, refugees, and “the idea that me and my family will come and live in your house.” Or view as a single page.
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.

David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.