Saeb Erekat

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You are Dr. Saeb Erekat, Chief Peace Negotiator for the Palestinian Authority.

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“There are no negotiations, nor will there be any negotiations as long as there is no freeze on settlement activity. It’s plain and simple: either the settlements or peace.“

“If the U.S. decides to be an honest broker, it could not only be effective but in fact could bring real peace to the region, a just and lasting one. The U.S. has a moral obligation toward the Palestinian people, who have been under occupation and living in exile for decades.”

“(The Israelis) may have the power to storm my hometown Jericho 20 times; I cannot stop them. They may have the power to hit missiles in Rafah; they may have the power and the support to demolish hundreds of homes and make thousands of people homeless, but they will never have the power to force a pen in any Palestinian hand to sign something that is not consistent with the interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people.”


Early Life and Career

You were born in Jericho, then part of Jordan, in 1955, and you still live in the same home in which you were born. You were sent with your brother to study in the United States, and you graduated with a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University in Political Science in 1977, followed by a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the same school. It is surely most relevant to your current work, work that has been at the center of your career, to note that your doctorate came from the Department of Peace Studies at England’s University of Bradford, where much of your work focused on conflict resolution.

Upon your return to the West Bank, you began working towards reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians through your writing, your political engagement, and your work with young people. You were a journalist and editorial writer for the leading Palestinian newspaper, al-Quds. You started an exchange program for Palestinian and Israeli youth, and you later not only served on the Board of Directors for the American-based Seeds of Peace Program (which brings together youth from conflict regions worldwide) but three of your own children are graduates of the program. You were also one of a number of young academics, living in the occupied territories, who rose to positions of influence within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). The significance of your being in the so-called “inside” group is that at this time, in the 1980’s, the PLO and its leader, Yassir Arafat, had been chased first out of Jordan, and later out of Lebanon, and were now based in Tunisia. Tensions between the “inside” group (mostly younger people who lived in the West Bank) and the “outside” group, who were in much closer proximity to Arafat and his sources of power, would persist.


Political Life

You ran afoul of the Israelis in the mid-eighties when you used your various platforms to publicly advocate that Palestinians should “reject and resist” military rule. You were arrested on the charge of sedition (using speech or the written word to advocate that people resist the authority of the state) and were both fined and jailed. You were critical not only of the Israeli occupation authorities, but of King Hussein of Jordan who you accused of being too cozy with the Israelis, and failing to advocate for the legitimate right of Palestinians. You appealed your sentence to the Israeli Supreme Court and though your appeal was denied, you gained greater visibility, one result of which is that you were chosen as one of three Palestinians to debate Israelis at a meeting telecast on the American news program “Nightline,” the first time that Palestinians and Israelis had ever addressed a TV audience together.

You were invited by Chairman Arafat to be a part of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, and you began to cultivate an image as an honest and fair negotiator, albeit one with a fiery and somewhat unpredictable temper. Thanks to your good reputation and your fluency in English, you were a frequent guest on Western news programs, and you gained still greater visibility. In the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which brought mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, and which created the Palestinian Authority (PA) as part of a planned transition to Palestinian statehood, you worried publicly that the Oslo Process could actually turn out to be worse than having no treaty if results weren’t visible on the ground to the average Palestinian. You worst fears were realized then with the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the ascension to power of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. You were deeply critical of Netanyahu for his “political blindness” (an assertion that could be somewhat uncomfortable given your central role in the 2013 negotiations). You were lead negotiator for the Palestinians at the Wye River, Hebron and Camp David talks in the 1990’s and the early 2000’s, and though the Camp David came tantalizingly close to resulting in a breakthrough, the moment passed and the second intifada (uprising) in the Occupied Territories undid most of the progress you helped to make. You spent the next few years on the political margins, as Yassir Arafat’s closer relationships with members of his “outside” team, especially current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saw your influence shrink.


Recent Events

Yassir Arafat died in 2004 and Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian Authority the following year, representing the PLO’s political party, Fatah. With the victory by Hamas in the 2006 legislative elections and the tensions that soon emerged between Fatah and Hamas, your relationship with Abbas would improve even as tensions within Palestine deepened. In 2007, the Fatah-Hamas joint government fell apart, and the PA took control of the West Bank while Hamas controlled the Gaza Strip. Most Western governments saw Hamas as a terrorist organization and a great deal of economic pressure was placed on Gaza, while economic support for the PA in the West Bank increased. You had long advocated that the energy of the Palestinian leadership needed to be devoted to building a robust Palestinian Authority as the backbone of a future Palestinian state., and your perspective fully meshed with that of Abbas and his PA Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. Another characteristic of yours emerged as a useful asset: your squeaky clean reputation. Many analysts saw Fatah’s loss in the 2006 elections as partially owing to Fatah’s reputation for corruption, tied to Hamas downplaying their Islamist orientation in favor of a “clean government” platform. You had made enemies within Fatah for openly criticizing the corrupt elements within it, but now your good reputation was something to be showcased.

The next few years saw little progress made towards a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. In 2009, the newly-elected American President Barack Obama took the initiative to push for peace negotiations, but they quickly ran aground on disputes over Israeli settlement-building and the Palestinian push for recognition by the United Nations. Things in the region were sent topsy-turvy by the events of the so-called Arab Spring, and little happened between Israelis and Palestinians until 2013 when the American Secretary of State John Kerry led a fresh push for peace talks. Those talks began in July 2013, and though there is some optimism that real progress will be made, your belief that the destiny of the two peoples is to live peacefully side-by-side will be seriously tested.


Character-Playing Notes

You must fight a reputation of being too conciliatory towards the Israelis. In 2011, documents pertaining to the previous decade’s worth of peace talks (many of which came from your office) suggested, for example, that you were willing to allow settlements built near Jerusalem to remain in Israel’s hands and be swapped for land elsewhere. Many have said that such land swaps must be a part of any negotiated solution, but an open acknowledgement of this is bad politics for you.

You are a true believer in the power of conflict resolution work, and this faith is seen by some as inspiring and by others as naïve…be wary of those who accuse you of being too easily manipulated.

Your relationship with the Hamas leadership is poor, as you strongly believe that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. You have indirectly accused both Hamas and Jewish settlers of hiding behind fear masked by faith.

Perhaps most importantly, you completely disagree with the widely-held belief that no true progress can be made towards a negotiated solution because of weak leadership on the two sides. You contend that this sort of excuse-making and the half measures that have been taken over the years has weakened the leaders on both sides, and you believe that robust and productive peace talks will provide Abbas and Netanyahu with precisely the strength that they are said to lack.


Sources

"Palestinian Biographies: Saeb Erekat." Lawrence of Cyberia. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Sept. 2013. <http://lawrenceofcyberia.blogs.com/palestinian_biographies/saeb-erekat-biography-1.html>.

"A Conversation With Saeb Erakat - YouTube." YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Sept. 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCFct65ea0A>.

Browning, Noah. " Palestinian negotiator: new Israeli settlements undermine talks| Reuters." Business News - Indian Stock Market, Stock Market News, Business & Finance, Market Statistics | Reuters India. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Sept. 2013. <http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/08/11/israel-palestinians-talks-idINDEE97A05Z20130811>.

"Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat - Keeping track of the peace process Israel News Broadcast | Haaretz." Israel News - Haaretz Israeli News source. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Sept. 2013. <http://www.haaretz.com/news/keeping-track-of-the-peace-process/1.539690>.

MILLER, AARON DAVID. "The Peace Processor - By Aaron David Miller | Foreign Policy." Foreign Policy - the global magazine of economics, politics, and ideas. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Sept. 2013. <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/05/The_Peace_Processor_Palestine_Saeb_Erekat>.

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