By Benjamin Dooley
The recent surge in attacks within Israel by young Palestinians, and subsequent crackdown by Israeli security forces, have some calling this recent wave of violence in the region the beginnings of a third intifada, or uprising. Days after clashes on the Temple Mount this past September, I had the opportunity to speak with Saeb Erekat, newly elected Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and longstanding Head of the PLO’s Negotiations Department, about their decision to publicly call for the nullification of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the current state of the PLO’s executive committee.
“I don’t think the Israeli street even sees us,” asserted the Secretary General when asked whether calling for the nullification of the Oslo Accords would even further abrogate the PLO’s standing as a credible peace partner to average Israelis.
Dr. Erekat went on to say that it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who negated Oslo long ago. “When we signed [Oslo] in 1993,” he said, “he vowed to bury it, and that’s what he did.” Yet despite a lack of progress towards Palestinian nationhood, Dr. Erekat reiterated his belief that it is “never too late” for a two-state solution.
Over the course of our conversation in his office in downtown Ramallah, we began to speak of past regrets — in particular, the failed talks at Camp David and Taba in the summer and winter of 2000/2001. Arguably the closest that the two sides have come to an agreement, these talks have left a tarnished legacy on both sides.
Palestinians blame timing and unfair Israeli demands (such as Israeli military bases on the Gaza-Egypt border and in the Jordan Valley) for the im-passe. Israelis blame what they’ve interpreted as a lack of sincerity on the part of then-PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, in bringing about a final agreement. Cited as reasons are Arafat’s failure to reign in terrorism in the Palestinian territories, his statements denying Jewish historical rights to the contentious Temple Mount area, and what has been said to be a denial of an Israeli offer made at the Camp David talks in July of 2000. However, Dr. Erekat was quick to insist that there was more to the story.
Ultimately, there would turn out to be no offer the table as of July 2000. “I sat with President Clinton and [Israeli Chief Negotiator] Shlomo Ben-Ami on the evening of the 24th of July. The three of us. And they both volunteered me to draft a communiqué saying that we have come a long way, turned every possible stone, we are very close, etc. Yes, we did not reach an agreement, but are going to continue negotiations,” said Dr. Erekat.
“So I did that. And once I left, and made a press conference in Washington to this effect, which was open, then both Barak and President Clinton claimed that they offered us and Arafat said no. I asked Clinton a year and a half later, ‘Why did you do that sir? No one for us in history has done what you did for us and Israel!’ And he said to me, ‘I was told that if I don’t say this, there will not be a peace camp in Israel.’”
After violence erupted in October of 2000, sparking what was to be the Second Intifada, the two sides continued to meet and negotiate in secret, despite the formal collapse of the talks. With violence escalating week by week, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak losing ground political to hawkish Likud-leader Ariel Sharon in the polls, it became clear that time was running out.
“An offer was made to me personally, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, on December 23rd in the White House, by Clinton. The real Clinton parameters were offered to us on the 23rd of December in the White House, 2000. And to that, we never said no,” continued Erekat.
Nor was it agreed to, as I posited.
“On the 23rd of December Arafat met with Clinton, he [Clinton] departed on the 20th of January 2001.”
The negotiators met in Taba, Egypt, to hammer out the final details of the Clinton parameters in January 2001. But with violence growing, discontent rising even in Barak’s own party, Clinton transitioning out of office, and Ehud Barak up for election in two weeks, the peace-makers had finally run out of time.
“I begged President Clinton and Madeline Albright,” said Dr. Erekat. “I said ‘I know, I’m the drafter, I know the details. Please don’t make white smoke from Camp David. We are not ready. Don’t listen to Barak. He is setting you up, setting us up, he has the elections in mind! He came to Camp David… he is doing this election for internal Israeli politics. We need six damn more weeks! Oh, Saeb Erekat said this, he doesn’t want peace!”
With a shrug, the Secretary General concluded. But what of Arafat’s comments on the Temple Mount, when things appeared so close? His gaze grew distant in thought, he paused and muttered simply, “To tell the truth, you know… I think President Clinton was one of the most decent individuals I’ve ever encountered. And for that matter, I think Shlomo Ben-Ami, was one of the most decent, honorable persons I’ve ever met in my life. And I don’t think they would dispute a word of what I said to you.”
As I began to leave, I thanked Dr. Erekat for his time, to which he added, “It’s my pleasure. It’s my life, you know, the commitment to peace. It’s not a job. I believe that Israelis and Palestinians have no option than to be neighbors, that’s the truth.”
“I’m not asking Jews to fast Ramaddan. I’m not asking Muslims to celebrate Hannukah or Rosh Hashana,” he said. “I’m asking them just to accept and respect. And I don’t think this is too much to ask, honestly. That’s not too much to ask. If we know how to accept and respect, I think we’re going to have peace. Stop these silly wars and hallucinations and these stupid talking points, they waste so much time in this government in Israel. They devote all their time to telling how they are right, but we just want peace.”
I bade him the sincerest of luck, but the elder statesman had more to say.
“I will be honest,” said Dr. Erekat woefully. “I’m very alone in this by the way, in Pales-tine. Many people are abandoning me, because I haven’t brought the agreement.”
“So what next then?” I asked. He raised his hands near his head as if to shrug, ‘I don’t know,’ and reiterated, “This is not a job. It’s my life. When the occupation began, I was 12. I started this when I was 20 in university, saying that Palestinians should abandon violence, initiate dialogue with Israel. I was very alone at that time. I am now again.”
So is peace truly, as he has asserted, inevitable? “There is no other solution. If it takes a year, 10 years,” said Erekat. “There is only one option, a state of Israel living side-by-side with a state of Palestine on 1967 borders. There is no other solution.”
Benjamin Dooley is a Canadian journalist who has reported from Europe, the Middle East, and China. After completing his studies at York University and the University of Toronto, he began a career in journalism focused on the nexus of governance, civil society, and conflict.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]