July 15, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2440

Saeb Ereqat: Over the Years, Israel Has Gradually Withdrawn from Its Positions; Therefore, We Have No Reason to Hurry

July 15, 2009
Palestinians, Jordan | Special Dispatch No. 2440

In a June 25, 2009 interview with the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, Palestinian Authority negotiations department head Saeb Ereqat said that the previous Israeli government, under Ehud Olmert, had offered PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas territory equal in size to 100% of the land occupied in 1967, by means of a land swap. Ereqat explained, however, that the PA would not agree to a land swap before Israel recognized the Palestinians' right to sovereignty over all the territory occupied in 1967. He added that there had been a steady erosion in Israel's position over the years, to the point that it had recently offered the Palestinians 100% of the territory; therefore, the Palestinians had no reason to rush into accepting the Israeli proposals. He stressed that the Right of Return and monetary compensation for the refugees were not mutually exclusive, and that the Palestinians would insist on receiving both.

Addressing the issue of Hamas, he said that nobody was asking it to recognize Israel, but that any government in which Hamas was a partner would have to recognize Israel and the commitments undertaken by the PLO.

Ereqat stated further that the Palestinians were acting in full coordination with Jordan and keeping it informed of all Israeli proposals and of their replies to these proposals. Regarding Iran, he said that it did not pose a threat, as was frequently claimed.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

"Once [the Palestinians] Establish Sovereignty, We Will Start Exchanging Land"

"After the [November 2007] Annapolis talks, PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas and [then-]Israeli prime minister [Ehud] Olmert held several closed-door meetings. [In fact,] from the [time of the] Annapolis talks until December 2008, there were 288 negotiation sessions by 12 [different] committees…

"During the last negotiation session, the Israelis presented their position to 'Abbas - and this was perhaps the first time that [Olmert's] proposal was revealed. Under the June 4, 1967 borders, the area of the West Bank and Gaza, including east Jerusalem, is 6,235 square km, and there are also 46 square km of no man's land, which are to be divided according to international law [i.e. equally between Israel and Palestine]. So all in all, our share of the territory is 6,258 square km.

"Olmert showed 'Abbas a map presenting Israel's position. In the Salfit [area], there is the settlement of Ariel, which [the Israelis] want to excise from the West Bank, and there is another settlement in the Tul Karem area, called Qedumim, which takes up [another] 21 square km of the West Bank. These two settlements also sit over the Western Palestinian aquifer, comprising 400 million cubic meters of water…

"Another densely populated area that [the Israelis] want [to keep] is the Maale Adumim [area], which is near Jerusalem, 13 km into the West Bank, and a third, called Gush Etzion, is located between Bethlehem and Hebron. Together, the areas that the Israelis want to keep constitute 6.5% of the West Bank, and in return they offered us [areas equivalent in size to] 5.8% in the Israeli territory south of Hebron, west of Bethlehem, and north of Jericho [near] Bet Shean. The remaining 0.7% will be a safe passage [between Gaza and the West Bank], 38 km long and 150 meters wide, connecting the town of Tarqumiya [near] Hebron with Bet Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip.

"'Abbas told [Olmert] that, according to the map he had obtained from a friendly country, the [Israeli] settlements that have been built to date occupy 1.2% of the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. He added that he would like to make progress, but [asked], 'How do you expect us to accept the principle of land-swap before we delineate the 1967 borders?' We know that in 1965, Jordan and Saudi Arabia exchanged territories amounting to 29 sq km. [Land swaps were also made between] Jordan and Iraq, the U.S. and Canada, and the U.S. and Mexico. It is an [accepted] practice. However, in order to talk about [land] swap, sovereignty must [first] be established.

"Olmert wanted first of all to trap us in his net. Without sovereignty, how can we accept the principle of land swap? It's not as if [the minute] we sign a [land swap] agreement, a Palestinian state will be established the same day and Israel will withdraw the same day. Once we establish our sovereignty, we will start exchanging land.

"But accepting the principle of land swap prior to that would be tantamount to waiving [U.N.] Resolution 242. It would be playing into [Israel's] hands, because [the Israelis] will then say that the 1967 territories and borders are not set in stone. There is no point in discussing a land swap until we have established our sovereignty in practice.

"'Abbas told Olmert something else [while] I was there. [He said:] 'I am not running a market or a bazaar, and I am not going to open one. There are the occupied territories, and there is Resolution 242, which states that occupation of other people's land is unacceptable. Do you accept this principle?'

"Many people say that the [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations of the last 10 or 15 years were useless and yielded nothing, but [that is not true]. In 1994 [i.e. during the Oslo negotiations] the Palestinian side could have capitulated and gained an achievement within one month. [That is,] we could have agreed to undertake the management of the education and health [systems] in the West Bank. [Likewise] Yasser Arafat could have accepted what was offered him at Camp David [in 2000], instead of [letting himself] be besieged in the Muqata'a and then murdered for no reason. President Mahmoud 'Abbas could have accepted [Olmert's] December 2008 proposal, [but he preferred to wait]...

"We have an absolute right to east Jerusalem. We cannot not listen to the voices that ask who will run Al-Aqsa. We revere and sanctify the Al-Aqsa mosque, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but they are no different from Rafah, Jericho, and the refugee camp of Aqbat Jabr. All these places were occupied by Israel, and I must not distinguish between them. No one should say that Al-Aqsa must be managed by a 'Muslim' or 'Arab,' [rather than by a Palestinian].

"[Likewise], nobody should agree to Israeli settlers remaining in the Palestinian [state]. We must not compare a Palestinian [whose family] lived in Palestine [long] before Netanyahu or his forefathers arrived, and who is still living there, to a settler who is living on Palestinian soil [and maintaining his presence there through] coercion, oppression and unacceptable [use of] force. We must not talk of land swap before we establish our sovereignty in practice...

"Those who are willing to hand over Al-Aqsa to the Muslim countries are talking only for themselves, and do not represent the PA president, the PLO, or the PLO negotiation department. Some say that we will [be willing to] grant the settlers citizenship. We reject [this idea] out of hand..."

The Right of Return and Compensation are Not Mutually Exclusive

"The problem of the [Palestinian] refugees is not the result of a volcano [eruption], earthquake, or flood. Someone caused it. Before we talk of international law, we must pinpoint the element responsible, and Israel must acknowledge this responsibility.

"The Palestinian decision makers do not have the right to decide the fate of the refugees; only the refugee himself can decide his own fate. It is not up to the international [community] either. It is the refugee who has the right to choose whether to return to Israel, return to Palestine, or remain where he is - and in all of these cases [he is entitled to] compensation.

"It is not the Right of Return or compensation; it's the Right of Return and compensation. Should Israel acknowledge its responsibility, and should the world want to resolve the conflict, there would be a need to establish an international mechanism to bear the cost. I estimate that we are talking about $140 billion."

Israel Is Slowly Softening Its Positions, So Why Should We Hurry?

"[Some ask] where the negotiations with the Israeli side have brought us. First [the Israelis] said we would [only have the right to] run our own schools and hospitals. Then they consented to give us 66% [of the occupied territories].

"At Camp David they offered 90%, and [recently] they offered 100%. So why should we hurry, after the all the injustice we have suffered? The agreement will not be stable anyway, unless it is based on international law and on justice."

Netanyahu's Speech Was One Big "No"

"Now a new Israeli government has arrived. Netanyahu comes from a home with a [specific] ideological [orientation]. His father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, is a 92-year-old professor who believes that there is a non-Jewish minority in Israel which must be treated with respect by [allowing it] to manage its own affairs in education, health, culture and religion.

"Netanyahu's speech stayed within the framework of this logic. First of all, he spent an hour dictating terms [to us], and then, in 10 seconds, he demanded that we come and talk to him without preconditions. Furthermore, the claim that he mentioned a Palestinian state is unfounded... Netanyahu was very clear and precise.

"So when America published a statement saying that the speech had contained positive elements, I called the White House and said to one of the staffers there, 'We seem to have heard two [different] speeches by Netanyahu. The one I heard did not include anything positive. If you heard a different speech, please tell me about it, because [in the one I heard,] Netanyahu... said 'no' to the two-state solution [based on] the 1967 borders, ignored the Arab [Peace] Initiative, and, [in an act of] unprecedented disdain for the Arab leaders, proposed to talk to them about water pipelines and gas pipelines.

"He also said 'no' to [reaching] a final agreement on [the issues of] Jerusalem, the settlements, the borders and the refugees. He changed the meaning of the word 'negotiation' from 'give and take' to 'take and dictate.' He threw out the Road Map - especially the clause on freezing the settlements, including their natural growth - and rejected Obama's vision. The latter spoke of the future and of a new Middle East, while Netanyahu spoke of the past and of the old Middle East..."

"Netanyahu will tell [U.S. Envoy George] Mitchell that Israel is willing to agree to anything, but that there are housing units in the settlements that are [already] under construction as well as [construction] tenders that have [already] been issued [and cannot be stopped]. We have told the Americans that 3,290 new housing units are under construction in the settlements, and that tenders have been issued for the construction of 11,000 more, so that about 14,000 housing units will be built during the current [Israeli] administration and the following ones, until the construction is completed. The Americans are bound to fall into this trap.

"This is why Obama must launch his initiative for reviving the peace [process] as soon as possible, for otherwise the region will be driven into an abyss of violence, chaos, and extremism, and that is a serious problem that must be addressed...

"Everyone must know that President 'Abbas and the Palestinians will not accept the proposals [of a partial freeze of the settlements], and 'Abbas already made this clear in documents that he sent to Obama."

Recognizing Israel as a Jewish State Means Joining the Zionist Movement

"Another issue is [recognizing] Israel as a Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, Truman was asked to sign [a document] recognizing [the establishment of] a 'provisional Jewish state.' After reading it carefully, he crossed out the words 'Jewish state' and in their place penned in the words 'state of Israel' - because asking someone to recognize a Jewish state is tantamount to asking him to join the Zionist movement. This movement believes that religion and nationality are one and the same.

"There are also other well-known reasons [to avoid recognizing Israel as a Jewish state] - namely, the 1.5 million Palestinians living in the 1948 territories [i.e. Israel's Arab citizens], as well as the Right of Return, etc... Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and has relations with the entire world. So why doesn't it ask them to recognize [it as a Jewish state]? Why does it ask this only of me?

The Arab Peace Initiative is Good for the Palestinians

"Following Netanyahu's speech, it is possible to obtain only one thing from the Arabs - namely, adherence to the Arab Peace Initiative. Here I want to reveal the secret of why we adhere to this initiative. It includes a clause that says: 'Upon Israel's complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem and Syria's occupied Arab Golan, [the Arabs] will begin taking steps [of rapprochement] with Israel." [Based on this clause], the Arabs can say to Israel: 'We will not take a single step in your direction before the goal [of a full Israeli withdrawal] is achieved.' This would help us. But there are those who want to torpedo the Arab Peace Initiative."

The Palestinians Coordinate All Their Actions with Jordan

"After the Annapolis [summit], President 'Abbas met with Jordanian King 'Abdallah II, and asked him to form a joint [Palestinian-Jordanian political] 'kitchen,' so that every word we exchange with the Israelis would first be perused by the king. [We told him], 'You are our partner. [We share] a border, and [our concerns about] security, water and refugees are [also] Jordanian interests. We will not surprise you. Every proposal we presented to Israel was first of all presented to our sister Jordan, and every proposal we received from Israel was presented to Jordan before we gave our reply, while taking into consideration the joint [Palestinian-Jordanian] interests. Relations between the Palestinians and Jordan have never been better than they are today. Everything that happens in Palestine affects Jordan. Besides, I cannot agree to the deployment of a third-party [military] force on the [Jordanian] border without Jordan's consent, and I cannot take a single step in resolving the refugee problem without ascertaining the fate of the refugees in Jordan - [the country] that hosts the greatest number of refugees..."

Hamas as a Movement Need Not Recognize Israel

"Hamas won the elections, but it is not reasonable to say that [just] because it won the elections, the U.N. must now change its charter, its bylaws, its rules, and its resolutions; that the Arab League must withdraw the [Arab Peace] Initiative; and that the PLO must change the humiliating agreements that have been signed.

"Nobody is asking Hamas to recognize Israel or the two-state [solution]. Nobody has asked Hamas to change even one letter in its [ideological] documents. It is the [PA] government that is required to recognize [Israel]. Resistance is a noble thing, and a sacred duty of anyone under occupation, but there is a great deal of difference between investing in resistance and carrying it out...

"What is needed at the moment is a Palestinian [national] unity government that will recognize the PLO's commitments, [because] this will enable us to reconstruct Gaza...

"If [Hamas'] goal is to establish a unified Arab nation state, or a caliphate, we will pursue [these goals] even before [Hamas] does - but first it is necessary to liberate Palestine... If all we want to do fight - no problem, let's bury the peace initiative, clean out the trenches, and do so..."

Iran Poses No Threat to the Region

"Is the Arab world really [divided] into a moderate camp and a resistance camp?... We do not see Iran as posing a threat to us. Iran is a country in the region with whom we [sometimes] disagree and [sometimes] agree.

"I want Iran to stand by the Palestinians and support the Palestinian cause without favoring one side [i.e. Hamas] over the other [i.e. the PLO/Fatah]. But Iran does not pose a threat to the region; that is an invention used by Netanyahu to convince the world.

"This region cannot tolerate more wars. The peaceful U.S.-Iran dialogue must succeed. I asked [former IAEA director-general] Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei in Vienna how many years it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, and he said 14 to 16 years. We must change this worn-out record [about the Iranian threat]."

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