The sad but true story of chief Palestinian negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat. Can the hero of the Palestine Papers survive another round of peace talks?
By Hakim Bishara
There was a time, back in the 1990s, when inveterate Palestinian negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat was on top of his game. Confident, eloquent and dolled up with an elegant pair of tortoise architect glasses, the capable young diplomat was a rising star. Together with colleagues such as Hanan Ashrawi, Sari Nusseibeh and the more proactive Marwan Barghuti, he emerged out of exile and anonymity as part of the next generation of PLO leaders. In their prime, they brought finesse and sophistication to the cause, while an aging and tragic Yasser Arafat wobbled with pathos between the heroic and the pathetic. Today, 20 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, that avant-garde group is a lineup of political corpses. Some are forgotten, some are locked behind bars and others still roam the chambers and corridors trying to save what little is left. Such is the case of the unrelenting Dr. Erekat.
The cameras flash in the Benjamin Franklin room of the U.S. Department of State building on a Washington DC July afternoon. Secretary of State John Kerry sketches his hopes and plans for the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in an air of solemn determination and historical importance. Nevertheless, the secretary is in high spirits. Solely credited for fashioning the unexpected breakthrough, the excitement of resuming negotiations goes as far as animating the sad expression permanently drawn upon his face. On his right stands Minister Tzipi Livni, basking in the spotlight. She’s delighted and rejuvenated by her re-encounter with diplomacy after years of irrelevance. On Kerry’s left, however, stands a man in notable discomposure. Checking his wrist watch time and again, Dr. Erekat is unable to stand still and unable to decide whether to unbutton his jacket or not. Posing there with the two close allies, Erekat looks like someone who has been dragged miserably to a friend of a friend’s party. Not because he wanted to, but he had no other option.
“You know, Saeb,” Livni says to him with a wry smile, “we all spent some time in the negotiations room.” Secretary Kerry peers paternally from behind her back, his hands clasped above his waist in a baby rocking gesture. A frowning Saeb replies with a timid nod. “We didn’t reach dead end in the past, but we didn’t complete our mission,” Livni adds, insisting on a flashback. Erekat gazes pensively at the floor with a haggard face and relapses into thought. What a wicked thing to do, to so carelessly conjure the memory of his lowest of lows. What Livni reminisces is the same negotiation process between 2007-2009 that almost brought Erekat’s long career to a total demise. It was on account of those futile talks that the man entrusted with negotiating the future of Palestinians lost face among his own people and the entire Arab world.
At the time, Erekat stood at the forefront of Palestinian diplomacy. His unrivaled expertise and connections – and President Mahmoud Abbas’s flimsy leadership – left him in charge of the ins and outs of Palestinian foreign affairs. There was no one greater than the chief negotiator. But as the Israeli-American pressure mounted, much was said and done out of protocol in the sake of saving the PA and maintaining “the process.” Erekat, as it often happens to people in power, couldn’t foresee the downfall. That happened in January 2011, when the meeting minutes of the talks with the Israelis and Americans (known as the Palestine Papers) were leaked to the press. The transcripts disclose the extent of concessions offered by Erekat and team in return for nothing much. Livni’s true hawkishness comes forward with blatant “No”s scattered all over the protocols. But on a deeper personal level, the leaks reveal the servile and submissive nature of PA officials in their dwellings with their Israelis counterparts, as well as their helpless obsequiousness toward the Americans. In a famous quote from the leaked files, one that directed all the rage against Erekat, the chief negotiator boasts to the Americans, saying, “We have invested time and effort and even killed our own people to maintain order and the rule of law […] We are not a country yet but we are the only ones in the Arab world who control the Zakat [Islamic Charity] and the sermons in the mosques. We are getting our act together.” With more revelations of that sort, Erekat’s crucifixion was only a matter of time. He was called a traitor, a collaborator, a snake, a puppet. In rampant appearances in the media, he tried to justify himself while raging and raving at those plotting against him and the Palestinian Authority. But the die was cast and things got only worse until he finally resigned his post as chief negotiator and vanished from the public eye.
Call it a sense of historic duty, a pact with the devil or a severe case of Stockholm syndrome, but scandalized and disgraced as he was, Ereket couldn’t kick the habit. Through backdoor meetings and secret rendezvous, he maintained full contact with the Israelis. Be it in Washington or in Geneva, in a mutual friend’s house or on an upscale hotel’s balcony, all sorts of liaisons and coordinations kept thriving under the radar. At present, after three years of silly hiding, it’s happening in the open again. The resigned Erekat, like a Lazarus from Jericho, rose from the grave to reclaim his position as chief negotiator, letting bygones be bygones.
Now that the reunion is completed, Livni and Erekat can indulge together in the craft of statesmanship like in the old times. Alas, it is not the case of a perfect deja vu. The characters, the set and the plot might be the same, but this time Erekat meets a Livni backed by an extremist right-wing government and supported by an American team composed exclusively of friends of Israel, starring the notorious Ambassador Martin Indyk. Unlike the Palestinians, the Israeli government has already benefited greatly from the return to negotiations. Its relations with the American administration and the European Union have improved; the Palestinian statehood project in the UN has been frozen; threats to prosecute Israeli politicians and generals in the ICC were removed; and the EU guidelines on settlements are being slowly quelled. Even President Abbas’s recent speech in the UN was watered down under American pressure, lest it upset Israel and harm the process. Meanwhile, the settlement expansion, the arbitrary arrests, the random killings and curfews continue uninterrupted.
After having to hear Kerry’s repeated pledges to Israel’s security, now comes Erekat’s turn to speak. Stumbling on words, he delivers a note shorter than two minutes. “I am delighted that all final status issues are on the table and will be resolved without any exceptions,” he says. For someone who’s been there from Madrid 1991 to Annapolis 2007, Erekat must know what a groundless, hopeful wish he had just uttered. He knows too that a declaration of the end to all claims under Israeli-American pressure would lead to nothing but the end of his own career. Time will soon tell if behind that delightful statement stands a cunning negotiator who’s challenging his rejectionist counterparts or a just a defenseless victim preparing for a grand sellout.
Hakim Bishara is a Palestinian freelance journalist and scriptwriter living in Israel. He has worked over the years in the Israeli and international press and was involved in several documentary films, including: Palestine the Lost Bride (AlJazeera), The Heart of Jenin (Eikon) and The Great Book Robbery (2911 Foundation).