Shlomi Eldar
Al-Monitor (Opinion)
February 14, 2013 - 12:00am
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/02/saeb-erekat-a-freeze-on-settle...


Israel is waiting for President Barack Obama. Social networks across the internet are full of petitions and “likes,” pleading with the president to give a speech about peace to the Israeli masses gathered in Rabin Square.

In contrast, apathy over Obama’s visit dominates the Palestinian street. No special preparations are underway, and there is a decided lack of excitement. Obama’s first visit to the Palestinian Authority? Who cares?

There are no plans to celebrate the presidential visit to Ramallah, because Obama isn’t considered objective. In fact, he is considered hostile. When it comes to Obama, the Palestinians are like large swathes of the Israeli public. They don’t really like him. They haven’t forgotten the part he played in the failure of Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen’s efforts to win recognition of Palestine’s full statehood at the United Nations (September 2011). But that’s not all. When Abu Mazen returned to the UN a year later with a watered-down proposal to recognize Palestine as an observer state, the president issued a veto yet again.

But this apathy is not just the result of Obama’s positions. It stems from a deep-seated belief among the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general that the United States is Israel’s patron, regardless of who happens to be sitting in the White House. They think it has always been like that, and it always will be.

For years Saeb Erekat held the title of Minister of Negotiations with Israel in the Palestinian Authority. It was a post he held even in the many years when there were no negotiations. He now explains in his own diplomatic way why the presidential visit isn’t really that exciting.

Why is that?

“Obama’s visit is most definitely an important event, but the president knows that the principle of 'Two states for two people, based on the 1967 borders' is a prerequisite for any talks. I hope he convinces Netanyahu to say that too. When Netanyahu talks about “two states” with saying what the borders will be, it’s as if he didn’t say anything.”

With a doctorate in peace studies from Bradford University in Britain, Erekat is certainly the most eloquent spokesman that the Palestinians have, especially when it comes to foreign affairs. His English is fluent, and his messages are straightforward, distinct, and binding. “There are no negotiations, nor will there be any negotiations as long as there is no freeze on settlement activity. Even Obama won’t get us to abandon this principle,” he says, emphasizing that, “It’s plain and simple: either the settlements or peace. We hope Obama convinces Netanyahu to stop all settlement activity so that we can negotiate.”

The Palestinian position is being stated loud and clear before the U.S. president visits  our region and even before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forms his new government. The red line it establishes is so incontrovertible that it will be very difficult for the Palestinians to back away from it.

When a Palestinian leader like Erekat insists that there will be no negotiations as long as there is no freeze on construction in settlements, it really does seem as if even Obama could do nothing to change that. After all, the Palestinian Authority must make a show of strength, especially now, with Hamas breathing down Abu Mazen’s neck and with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal “getting the word out” that he would like to inherit Abu Mazen’s title.

The Palestinian demand that Netanyahu freeze construction in the settlements has only succeeded once before … so far. On Nov. 26, 2009, Netanyahu acceded to pressure by Obama and declared a freeze on construction in the settlements for a 10-month period. As head of a broad coalition, Netanyahu was at the pinnacle of his power and could allow himself to do this. Just one month before the freeze ended, in early September 2010, negotiations with Abu Mazen were restarted at a White House summit, in the presence of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan. Obama implored Netanyahu to extend the freeze by at least two months so as to give the talks another chance. Unable to withstand the pressure from the settlers, Netanyahu refused.

In a scathing editorial in The New York Times, senior columnist Thomas Friedman accused the Israeli prime minister of humiliating the American president, and added the following threat: “Don’t count on America to ride to the rescue. It has to start with you. My president is busy.” Now that the president has found the time to visit our region, this may be the right time for him to ride to the rescue.

What would happen if Obama says to Abu Mazen, “Let’s start the negotiations, and we’ll talk about freezing the settlements too”?

“What do you mean? We’ve been doing that for twenty years now. If you pour boiling water into a cup and add coffee, you won’t get orange juice. You’ll get coffee, and we drank that hundreds of times already. We don’t want a repeat of the exact same thing. We don’t want one cup of coffee after another.”

Still, don’t you feel that something in Israel has changed in the wake of the recent elections? It turned out that the Israeli right didn’t win a resounding majority.

“With all due respect to the Israeli elections, our demands for peace haven’t changed. They are still the 1967 borders and a halt on settlement activity.”

Don’t you feel any sense of change, even after Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid’s victory? I am well aware that you know him. You know the difference between him and HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett.

“I don’t want to get involved. Those are internal Israeli affairs. It doesn’t matter to us what coalition is formed.”

But didn’t you have even the slightest drop of hope when you heard the election results?

“It’s irrelevant. Really …”

And suddenly Erekat ended our conversation. He said a quick goodbye and hung up. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. All I wanted was to know what the man responsible for negotiations (which haven’t taken place in years) feels about the possibility of negotiations in the future.

As it looks now, Obama will be visiting our region. He will be received with respect but also with suspicion, and then he will go back to his own pressing business. And then, all that will be left for us Israelis and Palestinians is another editorial by Thomas Friedman. It will probably say something along the lines of, “Guys, you’ll have to work it out yourselves. Obama is busy.”

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work. He has published two books: Eyeless in Gaza (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and Getting to Know Hamas (2012). In 2010 Eldar directed the documentary film Precious Life, official selection of the 2010 Telluride and Toronto International film festivals, which won the Ophir Award (the Israeli Oscar for documentary filmmaking). He has an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lives in Ness Tsiona.




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