[Published 7 July 2010]
President Obama missed a wonderful opportunity to reprimand Palestinian Authority (PA) Chief Negotiator - Saeb Erekat - for his hate-filled and racist remarks made at a meeting held by the International Peace Institute (IPI) in New York just ten days ago in the presence of Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.
That opportunity was afforded President Obama at a joint press conference he held with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the conclusion of their meeting in the White House on 5 July.
President Obama’s failure to do so was even more apparent as he told the gathered press corps:
“I think it’s very important that the Palestinians not look for excuses for incitement, that they are not engaging in provocative language; that at the international level, they are maintaining a constructive tone, as opposed to looking for opportunities to embarrass Israel.”
Mr Erekat’s remarks were racist, highly provocative and amounted to incitement on a level never heard from so senior a member of the PA before. Maybe this is what triggered President Obama’s warning. However without any direct - and public - Presidential rebuke or reprimand - the President’s call amounted to nothing more than hot air devoid of any context which led to it being made.
Addressing the IPI meeting Mr Erekat had this to say:
“There are roads today in the West Bank that we cannot use as Palestinians — only Israelis can use. And look — such diseases as racism and bigotry, once it inflicts underneath our skin, we have tended to justify it, sometimes [indiscernible], sometimes economically, sometimes psychologically, and sometimes even sexually. Today Israel is justifying this apartheid regime in the West Bank by security terms – that’s racism".“
Absent was any comment or acknowledgment by Mr Erekat that there are other roads in the West Bank that are closed to Jews.
Describing Israel’s concerns as “security pretexts” and translating those genuinely held concerns into policies promoting apartheid and racism indicates that Mr Erekat’s position as Senior Negotiator for the PA has been seriously compromised.
In answering questions Mr Erekat affirmed his earlier inflammatory comments - stating
“And I’m sorry that term, racist policies, angered some here. I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know what’s the definition for it. I said that in Tel Aviv University. I said it’s shameless.It is shameless. It is shameless, in 2010, there are roads in the West Bank Christians and Muslims cannot use under security pretexts. Never in the darkest hours of South Africa’s apartheid were blacks prevented to use roads. You’re angry? Do something about it! Ignoring facts don’t mean they don’t exist. 42 years after a corrupt occupation, yes, it’s developing. It’s developing towards an apartheid system,”
These comments brought the following response from Mr Meridor:
“It’s quite strange to hear of apartheid from people who says everybody has a right to build in the West Bank provided he’s not Jewish. This is okay. Everybody can build in Jerusalem if it’s not Jewish. This is okay. To say that people cannot live in a certain place because they are Jews is fine. So to speak of apartheid is really, it’s very popular in some circles, but it’s somewhat strange.”
No doubt Mr Erekat is experiencing a deep sense of frustration as the last seven years of negotiations with which he has been intimately associated have gone nowhere. Frustration leads to resentment but any diplomat worth his political salt must learn to curb his tongue and refrain from public statements that undermine the very essence of continued negotiations.
Mr Erekat’s remarks clearly fell within the parameters of President Obama’s warning.
In failing to directly and openly reprimand Mr Erekat for his statements, President Obama has indicated by his silence that Mr Erekat has carte blanche - so far as America is concerned - to engage in the use of similar language in the course of the future conduct of any negotiations between Israel and the PA.
President Obama’s deafening silence was matched by IPI Chairman Terje Rod-Larsen who compounded and condoned Mr Erekat’s inflammatory language when summing up:
“Yet we’ve had here at the International Peace Institute two of the people who are leaders at the very front line of this conflict arguing their case passionately, persuasively, honestly, and I’d say courageously, and I was also just about to say, and with restraint and very well mannered.”
Any balanced assessment of Mr Erekat’s outrageous behaviour would conclude otherwise.
Israel will scarcely be able to complain about the future use of such language by any PA officials unless it takes a stand now and calls for the removal of Mr Erekat as chief negotiator.
Charges of racism and apartheid against Israel by PA officials need to be stamped out once and for all.
Mr Netanyahu told President Obama:
“I think there are solutions that we can adopt. But in order to proceed to the solutions, we need to begin negotiations in order to end them. We’ve begun proximity talks. I think it’s high time to begin direct talks. I think with the help of President Obama, President Abbas and myself should engage in direct talks to reach a political settlement of peace,coupled with security and prosperity.”
Given the expressed views of Mr Erekat - he should not be included in any such direct talks.
As a negotiator Mr Erekat has been a total failure in his ability to come to a concluded agreement with Israel. That the PA continue to use his services is obviously a matter for the PA alone to decide.
However in view of Mr Erekat’s intemperate statements - it is time for Israel to insist on Mr Erekat’s exclusion from the resumption of any direct talks as a condition of Israel’s future participation.
Israel’s sense of national pride and its national interest demands it takes such a stance. Accusations of racism and apartheid by top PA officials should not be condoned by Israel under any circumstances.
Mr Erekat has dug his own grave. In doing so - he may just have managed to secure peace for himself enabling him to live out his remaining years in his home town - Jericho - rather than the international arena.