Palestinian Authority envoy Saeb Erekat excoriated Al-Jazeera late last month
for publishing leaked documents relating to his peace negotiations with Israel,
claiming its reporting had put his life in danger. Three weeks later, it’s his
political life that is over. On Saturday, Erekat resigned.
WikiLeaks-style document dump known as the “Palestine Papers” portrayed a man
who was comfortable, even jocular, with his Israeli and American counterparts,
pushing for concessions where he could and making compromises when he had to. In
the one document most observers attribute to his demise, Erekat referred to
Palestinian refugees as a “bargaining chip” – contradicting his public position
that their rights were inalienable.
he end of the Erekat era underscores
an unfortunate axiom of Middle East diplomacy: Palestinian leaders won’t take
risks for peace.
They won’t tell their population that compromise is
necessary to bring an end to the conflict and start the hard work of building a
state. Instead, they feed their people a steady diet of anti- Zionist conspiracy
theories, blame Israel for all their ills, and pump them full of hate for its
allies – like America.
This is the ultranationalist narrative that has
endured for decades.
Few Palestinian leaders dare challenge this popular
doctrine. Erekat certainly never did.
TO BE sure, Erekat was a journeyman
diplomat. He participated in the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the signing of
the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn two years later. He was at Camp David
in 2000 and Taba in 2001. After nearly every negotiation, however, he walked out
with furrowed brows and a sharp tongue. He attributed the failure to reach an
agreement to Israeli intransigence or American collusion with Israel on issues
that crossed Palestinian red lines. But after reading the Palestinian Papers,
one has to wonder: How much of that was theater? In 1995, Erekat proclaimed that
the “peace process is slipping out of our hands because of [prime minister
Yitzhak] Rabin’s hesitancy.” Rabin, who was assassinated that year, was probably
the best peace partner the Palestinians ever had.
The following year,
Erekat turned his sights on US envoy Dennis Ross, a career peacemaker,
denigrating him for being optimistic about peace. “Maybe in his way Mr. Ross
sees progress, but in our way we do not see any progress,” he said.
1997, he blamed Washington for diplomatic setbacks, despite continued Hamas
attacks that made negotiations nearly impossible. “The fact that the United
States has not been decisive with [then-prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu has
caused the peace process to lose credibility,” he said.
Bill Clinton made a final push for peace in 1999, Erekat claimed the Israelis
were seeking to ensure that the peace process “will be destroyed before it
begins.” During the Camp David summit in 2000 – the closest the two sides ever
came to peace – Erekat made one of his most egregious assertions, deflating the
prevailing tone of tempered optimism. He claimed Israel had no historical claim
to Jerusalem: “I don’t believe there was a [Jewish] temple on top of the Haram
[Temple Mount], I really don’t.”
When Erekat’s own Fatah faction started
the Aksa intifada in September 2000, he blamed Israel “for all the current
developments,” even though he openly admitted to walking away from the table. He
later slammed the US for “blaming and slugging the Palestinians.” After
president George W. Bush blackballed PA leader Yasser Arafat from the White
House for his role in fomenting violence, Erekat presented himself as the key to
diplomacy. “It’s talking to me, reaching an agreement with me, creating a
Palestinian state next to the State of Israel, that will provide peace and
opportunity,” he said. It was even rumored, after Arafat’s death in 2004, that
Erekat aspired to become president.
In 2005, however, PA President
Mahmoud Abbas excluded him from his cabinet. Only when President Barack Obama
resurrected the diplomatic process did he reemerge as a key
Seasoned diplomats seemed to think Erekat’s presence was a net
gain for the peace process. But, he never took responsibility for Palestinian
failures, and failed to prepare his people for compromises he could have
Despite his long career as a peace negotiator, his legacy is one of
reinforcing age-old hatreds.
Saeb Erekat’s departure was long
overdue.The writer is vice president of the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies and author of
Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave