February 13, 2011 | Quote

The End of the Erekat Era

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.

The 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.

In 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.

When president 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 figure.

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 made.

Despite his long career as a peace negotiator, his legacy is one of reinforcing age-old hatreds.

Saeb Erekat’s departure was long overdue.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).