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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 12:11 GMT 13:11 UK
Middle East: Ask Saeb Erekat
Former Palestinian chief negotiator, Dr Saeb Erekat
Palestinian chief negotiator Dr Saeb Erekat answered your questions on the Middle East crisis.

  • Click here to read the transcript

    Diplomatic efforts have been stepped up in an attempt to move the Middle East peace initiative forward after a week of violence.

    Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - also known as Abu Mazen - has met the United States peace envoy John Wolf.

    There was no word on the outcome of the talks in Gaza, which came hours before Abu Mazen was expected to finally meet representatives of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.

    Mr Wolf, who was appointed by President Bush to monitor the implementation of the roadmap, also held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday night.

    Mr Sharon has vowed to continue targeting Hamas, which has carried out a wave of suicide bombings against Israel since the Palestinian uprising (intifada) erupted in September, 2000.

    You put your questions to Dr Saeb Erekat, Palestinian chief negotiator, in an interactive forum.

    Dr Erekat was also a guest on the BBC2 programme What the world thinks of America. Click on the related link to find out more about the global debate which was hosted by the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr.



    Transcript


    Paul Reynolds:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News interactive forum, I'm Paul Reynolds. Diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have been stepped up in an attempt to move the peace initiative - it's called the road map - forward after a recent wave of violence left at least 60 people dead. But can these negotiations really put that road map back on track? Can a peace plan survive and stability finally be achieved?

    We've been inundated with your questions to our guest today. He's the Palestinian chief negotiator Dr Saeb Erekat who's here in London. Dr Erekat welcome. Can I ask you a first question from a Palestinian living in the UK, Emad. "Do you have much hope that the road map will succeed in resolving the conflict under the supervision of the current American administration which is heavily influenced by Zionists and neo-conservatives?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well I believe Paul that the road map presents a real opportunity. I think it's not reinventing the wheel. I personally took part in the drafting of the road map along with the Europeans, the Americans, the Russians, the Israelis and UN, aside from the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis. There are three new elements in the road map that makes it different from any other document since 1991.

    One, it provided an end game, a very clear cut end game, that is ending the Israeli occupation that begun in '67 and the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. Secondly, it's a benchmark leading towards a time ceiling of 2005 where the whole process will be over. And thirdly, it's provided for the first time monitors, foreign monitors, from the quartet on the ground to vouch and watch the side that's doing and the side that's not doing.

    I believe what needs to be done now is that if we take the first phase of the road map, there are 15 clear cut Palestinian obligations, 12 clear cut Israeli obligations, none of them are negotiation oriented commitments, they are all decision oriented commitments. I believe that the Americans take these 27 commitments, benchmark them in terms of time and tell the parties we're watching you.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What about this point he makes about the US administration being heavily influenced by Zionists and neo-conservatives.


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    The US administration is an administration that follows America's interests. And today there are more American tanks and more American fighter planes in the Middle East than there are anywhere in the world, including the United States. And I believe the function and nature of nations in the regions like saying Israel will protect western interests has really diminished because of fact and also the nature of allies to the United States for these reasons have also diminished. So I believe if the US pursues its interests they know and they must know that the key to stability, moderation and peace is through a meaningful peace process that will lead to ending this Israeli occupation.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Well here's a question from the other side of the spectrum from Bryan in the UK: "Why are some Palestinians so determined to use murder and terrorism to publicise their case? How much closer would they be to a Palestinian state if diplomacy, not terrorism, was their only weapon?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    I believe that diplomacy should be adopted by all Palestinian factions. I believe a meaningful peace process must be taken by all Palestinian factions - this is why we appreciate very much the efforts being exerted by the Egyptian government, at this particular moment in order to acquire a ceasefire from all Palestinian factions in order to facilitate and enable the parties to implement the road map.

    We have to keep in mind something and that is we have been under occupation for the last 36 years and reviving hope in the minds of Palestinians that peace is do-able, that diplomacy can do it, that ending the occupation will happen through these peaceful means is the key to success of diplomacy.

    Unfortunately so far what we have witnessed is United States administrations continuing to keep Israel as a country above the laws of man, tolerating the Israeli occupation, settlement activities, assassinations and incursions. But nevertheless I believe the only way out is through a meaningful peace process and we have a good document that can present a real opportunity to break the vicious cycle between Palestinians and Israelis and that is the implementation of the road map. And I say implementation because Israelis and Palestinians will not use their ears anymore, they will use only their eyes - they want to see implementation on the ground.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Here's a direct question here from Alex, just been phoned in: "Do you unequivocally accept the permanent presence of Israel as a Jewish state within the pre-1967 borders?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    I recognise the state of Israel's right to exist. I recognise the state of Israel's existence on the June 4th '67 border next to a Palestinian state. About saying Jewish nature or not Jewish nature we recognise Israel, Israel can call itself whatever they want. But we have, as Palestinians, recognised the state of Israel's right to exist on the June 4th '67 border that is 78% of historic Palestine and the state we want to establish as a Palestine state, it is on the June 4th '67 borders that is 22% of historic Palestine.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Mahmoud Sharif from Canada "How can the road map bring peace in the region when it doesn't guarantee justice to the Palestinians?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well I believe Mahmoud should read the road map because if he reads the preamble of the road map it specifies that the end game is to end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and that's the first time this language is used in any document, to establish a viable Palestinian state - independent and full sovereignty. And through the implementation of resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and Crown Prince Abdullah's initiative that was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut. So I believe all in all the end game is very clear, that is ending the Israeli occupation and establishing the Palestinian state on June 4th '67 including East Jerusalem and I believe the road map can facilitate the way if implemented accurately.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Well let's move on to these issues of strategy. David Ward from the UK: "Does Mr Erekat agree that the resort to violence by the Palestinians in September 2000 was a strategic mistake that has only harmed their cause?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well look in September 2000 we were at a very high moment of our history, we have come a long way with the Israelis after Camp David. I was personally negotiating in that month secretly for more than 57 sessions at the King David Hotel with my Israeli colleagues. And by the way that month we had drafted three chapters of the permanent status treaty, nobody knows this, and the fact is Prime Minister Sharon decided to go against all of us to the most holiest shrines for the Muslims, that is the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem and we had warned not to do such provocative actions - it happened, but now we're not going to revisit history. I want to look to tomorrow, I want to save the lives of Israelis and Palestinians from now on. And I believe the way to look forward is through finding the mechanisms to implement the road map in its entirety and in parallel.


    Paul Reynolds:

    This issue of Hamas and the ceasefire, there doesn't seem to be any agreement on the ceasefire - is that how you read it?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Not yet.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Do you think there will be?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Yes.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Why do you say that?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    I believe that there are many factors that are interacting, I can't speak on behalf of Hamas or anybody else, but I'm speaking now and analysing the situation. Look you have Egypt behind this effort, you have Saudi Arabia behind this effort, you have Jordan behind this effort, I don't think the Syrians are away from also this effort - then you have the United States, you have Europe, you have Russia, you have the United Nations.

    And I believe the Egyptians have introduced a paper calling for a one year ceasefire that must be adopted. But this must be matched in parallel with a commitment from Israel to have a total ceasefire, to refrain from attacking Palestinians anywhere, assassinations, incursions, demolition of homes, confiscation of land and settlement activities. But I believe yes, a ceasefire is do-able and I think Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, is pursuing it as I'm speaking to you now.


    Paul Reynolds:

    A couple of questions along those lines, an e-mail from Brian Hall in the United States: "TV shows Hamas and Islamic Jihad, armed people demonstrating with their weapons in the streets, why doesn't the Palestinian authority arrest all the Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists?" And Jan from the United States: "I know Israel and Palestine want to have peace so why do the Palestinians allow Hamas to continue the terror attacks?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well let me say that in the West Bank we don't have control anymore, the Palestinian authority's capabilities were totally destroyed, Israel had virtually reoccupied most of the West Bank. As far as Gaza is concerned, I'm not running away from the responsibilities - yes it's an obligation on us to maintain the oneness of our authority and not to tolerate parallel authorities. This is why we're seeking at this stage to have a ceasefire from all Palestinian factions. But then as we proceed forward we don't want to go on to civil war but at the same time as we proceed forward I believe that we will differentiate between political pluralism and authority pluralism and authority pluralism should not be tolerated.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Well you've mentioned the phrase civil war, Michael from Baltimore in the United States: "Do you think a civil war between the PA and the extremist Hamas is unavoidable and even necessary to arrive at a truly united Palestinian entity?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    No. I believe that a civil war will not happen. I believe it will just complicate the lives of everybody including Israelis and I believe the lines we're pursuing now in order to obtain the ceasefire is the right way of doing things.


    Paul Reynolds:

    . Sepand Siassi from Canada: "Is there a link between Hamas and other militias and Iran?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Not that I know of. I have no knowledge whatsoever about the connections and orientations of these parties.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Alright, onto Sherif Nagi in Scotland - missed opportunities: "What was wrong with the Oslo Agreement, which you were heavily involved in of course, and how can the PA learn from its mistakes there in order to achieve better results?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well there was nothing wrong with the substance of the Oslo Agreement - the wrong was with us - I'm talking about us and the Israelis. First of all the Israelis introduced the concept no sacred deaths, no commitments to the agreements signed, no limitation and continue with the settlement activities. And then as Palestinians I believe we did not prepare our public for what it takes to make a comprehensive peace on all issues of negotiations - a lesson learned.


    Paul Reynolds:

    That's an interesting omission, if I may say so. What could you have done to do that?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    When you speak about issues of Permanent Status negotiations, to me, as a Palestinian or to my colleagues the Israelis when it comes to Jerusalem - settlements, borders and refugees - these are the issues that make us breathe and was a product of our religions, history, geography, ancient times and the process of handling 3,000 years of complexities is not as easy as we thought. So when I say that preparing the public - Palestinian public - to what it takes, I really mean it and at the same time the Israeli colleagues need to prepare their public because we often look at our constituencies and say the things they like to hear without saying the things that they should hear.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Now I want to ask quite an interesting question, for me at least, from Gabriel DeSanctis in the United States because this picks up on the negotiations that followed those in Camp David which came so close to reaching an agreement. "What in your opinion was wrong with the Clinton sponsored peace settlement?" What happened there?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    First of all the Clinton parameters brought Palestinians and Israelis to squares nobody had thought that we would reach at that given time. History, as somebody who took part in the Camp David negotiations and before them in the Bolling negotiations and before them in all negotiations and then after Camp David negotiations until Taba, I believe President Clinton, Mr Barak, Mr Arafat should have been congratulated on their achievements. But unfortunately we played petty politics and blame assignment and finger pointing. I believe more than 80% - 90% of the taboos between Palestinians and Israelis have been broken in these negotiations on all issues. People don't know that we have drafted three chapters of the Permanent Status Treaty on all issues. People don't know that I have agreed with Mr Shlomo Ben-Ami that by April 30th 2001 we would have concluded the Permanent Status Treaty. What happened is that we had February 6th elections in Israel that brought Sharon to office and ever since that time, till now, we haven't had one single negotiation session with the Israelis. So I have been unemployed by the way Paul since February 2001 or March 2001.


    Paul Reynolds:

    You are still technically chief negotiator but are you actually going to rejoin the negotiations?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Yes, yes I officially head the negotiating department - Palestinian negotiating department. And Abu Mazen wants me to stay as the chief negotiator and I have resigned from my cabinet post and my negotiations post - one was accepted, the other was not. But we have to make up our minds, including myself, in the next four to five days.


    Paul Reynolds:

    There's a question from a Palestinian in Canada, we don't have the name: "Abu Mazen is someone whom the Israelis and the Americans want in power. Why should the Palestinians trust a leader chosen for them by Bush and Sharon?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    That's absolutely unfair. Abu Mazen is a Palestinian choice, he was picked by President Arafat and the Central Committee of Fatah and then he was presented to the Central Council which is the highest Palestinian body after the PNC and the PLO and then he was - he presented his cabinet and himself to the Palestinian legislative council and got 51 votes including my vote. So Abu Mazen is a Palestinian choice and if he is supported by the United States and Europe and others I think we should give serious consideration to this and do everything in our power in order to have Abu Mazen succeed in implementing the programme he announced when he was confirmed as the Prime Minister.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Here are a couple of questions about outside intervention, outside help. Paul Brown, Winnipeg, Canada: "Do you agree that a third party arbitrator will be necessary to instigate change in the region?" And Muzz Adams from England says: "Given the nature of the ongoing tit-for-tat conflict, not to mention the UN resolutions that Israel has been failing to abide by, would it not make sense for the UN to deploy peacekeepers so that a neutral force may keep watch and monitor both parties?" So the idea of the outside force.


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well as Palestinians we have been always calling for an international force, international protection force - UN, European, American - any composition of international force to implement the full Geneva convention. Unfortunately this has not materialised, I don't think it's going to materialise. That's one level of third party intervention. But there are other levels of third party interventions.

    Today Paul the trust level between us and the Israelis is below zero. We're very angry, we're very full of hate. I'm talking about both of us. And I don't call for a third party to help at this stage to negotiate for us or to make the concessions for us. I call upon them to help us in order to begin a process for rebuilding the trust between us. And I know that peace is do-able and I know that I do not wake up one morning Paul and feel my conscience was aching that I recognise the state of Israel. Neither do they wake up one morning and felt their own conscience aching that they want to recognise me. We have realised that our conflict cannot be played in a zero sum game, we have been losers for the last 50 years and now it's time to be winners to a meaningful peace process.


    Paul Reynolds:

    But you say that Saeb, and you and I go back to the mid '80s, and I look at you now and you've always been talking this way with hope and yet the actual events on the ground have gone the other way haven't they?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Look I think in the '80s, when you met me and you remember if I recall I established the Palestinian peace camp, calling for dialogue and peace and a renunciation of violence since 1979 I was so lonely at that time, I was so lonely. Look at it this way, today the majority of the Palestinian people support this.


    Paul Reynolds:

    But not Hamas.


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    I'm talking about the majority, I don't think that all Palestinians must see eye to eye with us as a Palestinian peace camp. I was elected with 62% of the votes in my constituency Jericho. And one other thing I want to add - I don't think the Middle East will ever be the same after March 2003. Today the President - President George W. Bush, you may refer to him as the President of the United States, but we refer to him as the President of the Arab Republic of Iraq. We are facing tremendous changes coming to the region and I believe the only way that we can salvage and have damage control towards a line of moderation, peace and stability in the region is through reviving hope that peace is do-able and ending the Israeli occupation.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Let me move on to this very important issue of refugees, which is one of the issues on which negotiations have broken down in the past. Jimmy from the United States: "In the news coverage about the Palestinian and Israeli negotiations there's very little mention of the four million Palestinian refugees and their right to return to their homes. Can this conflict really end without a resolution to this problem?" Jackie McKerrell from Melbourne, Australia: "As difficult as it would be would the Palestinians give up the right of return to Israel proper for a complete Israeli evacuation of the settlements?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Well I think if we look at the road map and why I support fully the road map. I think it provides an opportunity, it's three phased because we don't want to overload the wagon for Israel and us in the first stage, so let's confine ourselves to the first stage. On the issue of the refugees Jerusalem settlements - the third phase - the quartet will launch an international conference whereby Permanent Status negotiations will be resumed on all Permanent Status issues, including Jerusalem settlements, borders and refugees and just, fair agreed solutions will be reached. So I would leave it to that point. I will not go into the negotiations with tales of any issues with you Paul - I'll do that with my Israeli colleagues on the other table.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What about Jerusalem? John Wood from the United States: "Is there any way that the PLA and Israel could come to an accommodation that is acceptable to both parties with regard to Jerusalem?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Absolutely, we almost did I think. Paul, sat with the Israelis, I put maps about Jerusalem - we know what it takes and we know what an agreed solution will be. We know that East Jerusalem is occupied and we know that West Jerusalem is part of Israel. We know that there will be certain accommodations of either side's concerns but it's do-able, it's do-able on the maps, it's do-able in accordance within the limitations of the Security Council resolution.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Here's a question from Israel from Y Medad: "If all Jews would have to leave the new Palestinian state would not that leave someone to presume that if peace depended on all territories being emptied of Jews then maybe Israel needs also to be empty of Arabs?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    I don't like this racism. It's not against Jews, it's not against Christians, not about Muslims, okay? Israel today we have recognised on 78% of historic Palestine there are 1.2 million Israelis who are non-Jews and they are Israelis. And I think it's not up to me to decide what the nature of Israel should be or the constitution of Israel or the basic law of Israel and so on but in their basic - the birth certificate of Israel when they declared their independence they called themselves Israel. And as far as the West Bank and Gaza - settlements are illegal, settlements have been built on confiscated Palestinian land, the United Nations consider them null and void. So by the way the United States considers it the most destructive act. And I know that Mr Medad leads the settler movement and I hope that once we will have peace between Israel and the Palestinian state I don't think they'll be any restrictions in Jews coming into Palestine or doing business in Palestine because simply they're Jews or non-Jews. I hope that Palestine will offer the model of co-existence and conciliation and healing.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Here's a question from Jose Velasquez in Panama City, Panama: "Can you mention five steps that need to be taken by both sides in order for the peace process to take hold?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Yes. One, Mr Sharon must stand up and say I recognise the Palestinian state. Secondly, he must say I call to stop all violence against Palestinians anywhere. Thirdly, he says I stop all incitement against Palestinians. Fourthly, he would call upon a total cessation of settlement activities including the so-called natural growth. And fifthly begin a meaningful process of withdrawal and lifting the closure and sieges under the quartet monitoring.

    Palestinians - we must stand up and say that we reiterate our commitment to recognise the state of Israel's right to exist. Secondly, we call upon the total cessation of violence against Israelis anywhere. Thirdly, that we stop violence - stop incitement against Israelis. Thirdly, that we present a reform programme on all domains, including security. And fifthly, that we'll move in the direction of maintaining the oneness of our authority. And by the way Paul I just read you the five steps that are required on both sides from the road map at outset.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Final question just come in, an e-mail from Helen Kirkner of Seven Lakes, North Carolina: "I was born in Jaffa, will I be able to go back to my birthplace?"


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    I hope so. I think in terms of the refugee question, as I said, this is a question that will up to negotiations. And the negotiations and the issue of refugees, settlements, borders and Jerusalem will occur at the beginning of the year 2004 by an international conference that will be launched by the quartet and I will not elaborate on any of the details of this negotiation.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Will you be involved in the negotiations yourselves?


    Dr Saeb Erekat:

    Paul I have to give an answer in four days. Peace-making to me is not a job. I've committed my life to peace, for the cause of peace, I believe peace is do-able. I am one of those who has been to life after peace. I know what it takes to make peace. It's about me sending my children to school without worrying whether they're going to come back or not. It's my friends in Israel sending their children to school without worrying whether they're coming back or not. Peace to us is just going back to the basic normal life as you live in Britain or anybody lives anywhere in the world. And that's my lifelong commitment and I will pursue this, I will pursue any line that will bring Israelis and Palestinians closer and closer towards peace.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Thank you very much indeed. Well I'm afraid we've run out of time. My deep thanks to our guest Dr Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, and to you for your many questions. Do join us again on Thursday 18th June when we hope to be joined by a member of Israel's Likud party in Jerusalem to discuss again this very issue. But for the moment from me, Paul Reynolds, and the rest of the interactive team here in London, goodbye




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