Q&A with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat

Tidi Benbenisti, Johannesburg, South Africa: How will the Islamist rule of Hamas affect the lives of modern and moderate Arabs, most notably non-Muslims and women in general? Saeb Erekat: First of all, we have full democracy now and the fact that Hamas won a majority of seats in the council doesn't mean that there will be a change in laws or new laws introduced. They may try to change the social fabric of society, may try to change freedoms, but even if they try to do it, they need to change the basic laws. We in Fatah will make sure that nothing will be done to undermine the social fabric and liberty, democracy, or women's rights in any form. Stew Feuerstine, New York, New York: Now that Fatah is likely to be in the opposition, What can it do to prove to the Palestinian people that they have cleaned out corruption and could be effective leaders? Also, do you feel that Hamas can live up to the peoples' expectations and be effective leaders? Saeb Erekat: Fatah will experience opposition now. And, you know, it doesn't take much to be in the opposition. Fatah will reconstruct, will rebuild, and we have begun already to regain the confidence of our people. We will undergo relentless efforts to rebuild a new party. Our program is a good program, it is a program of peace, reconciliation, two state solution, negotiations, good international relations, and I know that Fatah will take the defeat as a first step toward its next victory. In the opposition we will make sure to demand better jobs, end unemployment, demolish the wall, stop settlements, improve agriculture, improve trade, create more jobs. You know the slogan that we have heard every week: end corruption. We will be a very, very effective party in the opposition. It's really up to them now. There are three things that I urge them to do: 1) Accept international legality, we are a member of the UN. 2) Accept Arab legality, we are a member of the Arab League. 3) Accept obligation to Palestinian Authority. I believe if they can do these things they can be in business. And that's where the interests of the Palestinian people lie. Bonnie, Bassi, Tallahassee,Florida, USA: I cannot help thinking that the recent Palestinian vote means that the majority want (or at least would not mind) Israel to be destroyed - and I am devastated and shocked. Please comment. Saeb Erekat: That's absolutely not true. What's happened in the vote was the biggest and most serious punishment vote in the history of democracies. This was a vote about punishing Fatah, not resisting peace, not destroying Israel. The fact is that in the second day of the elections there was a public opinion pole in which 66% of Palestinians said they want continuation of negotiations. So please don't confuse the two, it's a vote of punishment, not a vote to destroy Israel. David Zacks, Jerusalem, Israel: I have heard, and would like to believe, that the Palestinian public didn't vote in extremism, they voted out corruption. Do you think that is true? What do you think Hamas will provide them that Fatah didn't? How much power does Fatah have as a minority power to balance out Hamas? Saeb Erekat: First of all, much of our defeat had to do with our mistakes. We are not running away from the blame. I believe that Hamas managed to exaggerate and magnify the extent of corruption. However, the second important thing was Israel's unilateral policies. Hamas's main campaign capitalized on this. They were telling our voters that the disengagement from Gaza did not happen because of negotiations but because of resistance. Hamas's second line in the election campaign was: Why do you care about negotiations? Israel declared no partner, they don't talk to you, and they placed Arafat under siege and terminated contact with Abbas. And this was also very powerful in saying that negotiations with Israel cannot go forward. Using these two lines led Hamas to victory. Gerry Mandell, Jerusalem, Israel: Other than the fact that Hamas is Islamist and Fatah is secular, how are their goals different? Saeb Erekat: They are different, in their social program, economic program, pursuing the peace process, and in accepting two state solution. We have a program that is different from Hamas 180 degrees, and this is why I urge them to embrace the three things mentioned above. [1) Accept international legality, we are a member of the UN. 2) Accept Arab legality, we are a member of the Arab League. 3) Accept obligation to Palestinian Authority. Hassan Ahmad, Gaza: Fatah made the transition from revolutionary force to PNA government. Why do you believe there is a perception that Hamas cannot do the same, especially since they've proved their ability in all forums they've entered? Saeb Erekat: To the contrary. I'm urging Hamas to begin change and reform. I think they need to start applying this slogan to themselves. I urge them to take the courageous step of changing and putting the people's interests above all other things. Slogans are one thing. But a government cannot be run by slogans. This is why Hamas should take the step of transforming itself and being part of the international community. I think they can do it, I think they should do it, and I encourage them to do it. Omar Paez, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA: What would happen to all gunmen who have traditionally supported Fatah? Will they accept Hamas as the new government? Is there risk of Civil War? Saeb Erekat: I think it's time for us in the PA to unite - those who won and those who lost and those who ran in elections and those who did not to make sure we have one authority, under one rule of law. It is time for these gunmen to join the PA and be under one law for Palestinian national interest. This phenomenon of gunmen, militias, and parallel authorities must end. There must be one authority, one gun, and the rule of law. Now we have in our political system some duality, the presidency (Abbas now in charge of security, governors, foreign policy, and in his capacity as head of the PLO executive committee he is also in charge of negotiations, this department which I head is not accountable to the PA or PNA). This is why Abbas must be helped to move in a direction of security in his capacity. Barry Levy, W. Warwick, Rhode Island, USA: I have heard some commentators say the victory of Hamas has set back the peace process 20 or 30 years. Would you agree or disagree and why? Saeb Erekat: I don't agree and people should not just say this. The peace process cannot be set back. We must encourage Hamas to accept the PA's obligation, I think they can do it, and we can expedite the process. As I said to you, Abbas's speech after the elections stated a full commitment to peace and continuation of negotiations. And we will continue in this commitment. If we have Hamas on board, that will be a good thing for the Palestinians. Cathie Williamson, London, England: Do you see any common ground between Hamas and Israel that could signal a starting point for negotiating peace? Saeb Erekat: I think we should be moving toward mutual recognition between Hamas and Israel, this is where things should move. Warren Gunda, Lilongwe, Malawi: Where does the PLO go after this dramatic poll victory by the Hamas? Saeb Erekat: According to basic law the PLO is the PA's umbrella and constitutes the terms of reference for the PA. So I think that the PLO will be strengthened and the PLO will reform and carry out its responsibilities to Palestinians all over the world, not only in the West Bank and Gaza. Barry Rosen, Berkeley, California, USA: In what way, if any, do you believe (or hope) that Hamas's victory would forge greater cooperation between moderate, democratic and secular Israeli and Palestinian leaders and influencers (political, business, NGOs, professional)? Saeb Erekat: I believe that nothing can stop the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, nothing can stop the peace process, nothing can reverse what has been going on between Palestinians and Israelis for the last ten years. The term "no partner" that was created by the Israelis was one of the most devastating terms and one of the most powerful terms used by Hamas in these elections. Khaim Kalontarov, New York, New York: Do you believe that Israeli policies contributed to such a landslide victory by Hamas and do you think Israel has the right under international law to target any Hamas cabinet member? Saeb Erekat: I don't think they have that right under international law and they should not even think about this. Israel must act with its obligation as a nation state and not as a mafia. I don't think they should target or jail any of these people who won. And I believe that the fact that we do not have peace for ten years, the fact that settlement activities continued, the fact that the wall existed, the fact that there have been no negotiations for four years, the fact that Israel's slogan now is 'unilateralism' and Kadima's slogan was formed under the banner of 'unilateralism'...Israel should look very carefully at these policies for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians in the future. Our eyes should focus now on the future and the future should be peace. We should be more determined now than ever, and this is what Israelis and Palestinians want most, and that's the truth. Mike Bettis, Bethlehem, New Hampshire, USA: How do you feel about Iran becoming a nuclear power? And how do you feel about the Iranian president? Saeb Erekat: I feel that this Middle East that I live in must be clean from all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear or other. I hope the UN will make sure we live in a region clean of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The Iranian president was elected by the Iranian people but I did not agree with his statement calling to wipe Israel off the map. Rather than calling to wipe nations off the map, he should be working to add Palestine next to Israel on the map in peace. David Spitz, Owings Mills, Maryland, USA: Do you fear that the election of Hamas will frighten the Israeli public and push them into the hands of Netanyahu? Saeb Erekat: The Israeli public is the most unpredictable public - like us. No one predicted Hamas's victory. So I leave the Israeli scene and Israeli front to the Israeli people and we will respect their democratic process. I hope they vote in a partner who will respect negotiations with us in order to reach the end game of peace, reconciliation, and end of conflict. Giacomo Zippel, Milan, Italy: Would you agree with the saying: "up to now this was mainly a political problem, now it has become a major religious problem?" Saeb Erekat: No I don't agree. There is a difference between worshipping G-d and using G-d. I believe people who worship G-d should worship G-d. And I don't believe that mosques, synagogues, and churches should be used to use G-d. We're the land of prophets, land of religion, but Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are joined in calling for graciousness, reconciliation, saving lives, peace, and none of these religions calls for avenge, wars, or conflict. So I believe that for people who want a continuation of this conflict, we should not give them [others] the cover of religion. Nathan Goldstein, Vancouver, Canada: What is the balance of power between the security apparatuses controlled by the PA chairman and those under the minister of the interior, a position that will undoubtedly be manned by a member of Hamas? Saeb Erekat: The Palestinian security forces as a whole are the responsibility of the Palestinian president. And the Palestinian Interior Minister is accountable to the president and responsible in the president's capacity as commander-in-chief and head of the National Security Council in which the Ministry of the Interior is also a member. The basic law makes sure there is no conflict of interest here: negotiations, security, international relations are all very well defined in basic law. I think we're going to have a very strong president.