Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times (Interview)
September 6, 2011 - 12:00am

Reporting from Jerusalem—
Palestinians have everyone guessing about their next move.

Defying the United States and Israel, the Palestinian Authority is expected this month to apply for full membership in the United Nations. If the Obama administration vetoes the application in the Security Council as expected, Palestinian officials are likely to turn to the General Assembly to upgrade their status from non-member "entity" to non-member "state." Gaining de facto statehood recognition from the international body could allow Palestinians to join key U.N. institutions, such as the International Criminal Court.

Palestinian leaders say they have enough votes for such a move. But with two weeks before the General Assembly convenes, they have remained vague about their exact plans, and have refused to say exactly what a U.N. membership application or General Assembly resolution might say.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, discussed with The Times what Palestinians are planning and why he thinks the U.N. bid, if unsuccessful, could spell the end of the Palestinian Authority.

There's been a flurry of last-minute pressure from the U.S. and Mideast "quartet" to convince Palestinians to shelve the U.N. membership bid. [White House envoys David Hale and Dennis Ross arrived in the region Tuesday.] Any chance of that happening?

Why? I don't see any contradiction between an effort to revive peace talks and our going to the U.N. Also, [for all practical purposes] we are already at the U.N. It's there.... And all those who support the 1967 lines [the border before Israel seized the West Bank during that year's Middle East War] with mutually agreed swap [of land] should support our endeavor.

The Obama administration doesn't support your bid, though it supports using the 1967 lines with swaps as the baseline for the border of a Palestinian state.

We urge the U.S. to see it the way it is. We are trying to preserve the two-state solution in the face of an Israeli government that is determined to destroy it. Going to the U.N. is an attempt to preserve the two-state solution so Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace and security.

What's your plan if the U.S. vetoes full membership? Have Americans told you they will veto?

The U.S. told us that the U.N. is not an option they will support. I hope they will not veto. How will they explain a veto?

They say that direct negotiation with Israel is the only way to reach a deal.

What have we been doing for the past 20 years? What have we been doing since [President George H.W.] Bush told us that if we recognize Israel, accept the two-state solution and renounce violence, the U.S. will stand shoulder to shoulder with us?

Assuming there is a veto, what would you gain by upgrading your status in the General Assembly?

The advantage is that you can be a full member of UNESCO, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, and you may be able to hold Israel accountable.

So that's the plan if you fail in the Security Council?

We haven't decided yet beyond that. We would have to come back and put the question to the leadership. There were nine ideas presented about what to do if America vetoes. Was going to the General Assembly discussed? Yes. Was throwing in the towel discussed? Yes. Maybe we'll make a decision about that in the next two weeks.

Throwing in the towel? You mean disbanding the Palestinian Authority?

The Authority was born to transfer Palestinians from occupation to independence. If Mr. [Benjamin] Netanyahu [the Israeli prime minister] thinks he can make this Authority in name only while he is the sole master and source of authority, he will sweat. If we get a [U.S.] veto and Netanyahu continues to build the settlements, I would suggest that Netanyahu study carefully the provisions of the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949 which specify the responsibilities of the occupying power.

If you fail in the Security Council and don't at least upgrade in the General Assembly, won't you risk looking like a failure in the eyes of Palestinians, particularly after all this buildup? Have you managed their expectations?

Palestinians know exactly what's happening. People don't have high expectations.... But maybe the Palestinian leadership should tell the people that after 20 years we don't have a partner and we cannot continue to be an authority in name only. That we should throw in the towel.

Many see that as a bluff. Wouldn't you be throwing away years of progress, institutions, security forces and putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work?

We haven't made a decision. I'm not asking for the disbanding of the authority. But I'm asking: Is this the authority that will take us to independence? It's a joke.... The status quo is the worst situation for us, worse than any storm that might come. I'm not in a position to bluff or make threats. It's about choices.

It sounds like you are hoping that Israel will cry uncle.

Eighteen years ago I would have accepted this argument. But now I'm a grandpa. I used to tell my wife that I never wanted my children to go through what I went through, but then they did. And I didn't want my grandchildren to go through it, and they are.

How does any of this get Israelis and Palestinians closer to an agreement or get Palestinians closer to statehood?

At least I won't be looking in the mirror and telling myself that I'm fooling my people.

After 20 years of failed peace talks, is it possible that the two sides' positions on borders, refugees and other issues are just unbridgeable and no amount of talks will make a difference?

Peace between conflicting parties is not about Saeb Erekat waking up one morning and feeling his conscience aching for Israelis or Israelis waking up and feeling their conscience aching for my suffering. It's about the matrix of interests maturing. Once any conflicting party believes that making peace is cheaper than continuing war, he'll do it. Our matrix of interest has matured to deliver the requirement for peace, but Israel hasn't opened the door. They think maintaining the status quo is best for them. We are trying to show them that the status quo is not sustainable.


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