Q&A

‘NOW IS THE TIME’

On the eve of the Mideast summit, the Palestinian negotiator calls for peace

SAEB EREKAT February 14 2005
Q&A

‘NOW IS THE TIME’

On the eve of the Mideast summit, the Palestinian negotiator calls for peace

SAEB EREKAT February 14 2005

‘NOW IS THE TIME’

On the eve of the Mideast summit, the Palestinian negotiator calls for peace

Q&A

SAEB EREKAT

With the announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would meet this week with itew Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, hopes were running high that, finally, there may be a way out of the crisis that has enveloped the Middle East for so many years. In a further effort to improve the political climate, Israel, which is already planning to pull out of the Gaza Strip, also agreed to release some 900 Palestinian prisoners and gradually remove some troops from the West Bank. Last week, Saeb Erekat, negotiator for the Palestinians, paused during a frantic day of meetings to speak with Jonathon Gatehouse of Maclean’s.

Suddenly there seems to be a window of opportunity for peace. What has changed?

I don’t like to use such adjectives: windows, doors, closed or open. I can tell you that a majority of Palestinians and a majority of Israelis expect from their leadership nothing less than a real opportunity.

What has to happen to make the summit between Abbas and Sharon a success?

It will depend largely on the following: our ability as Palestinians to ensure a full cessation of violence against Israelis anywhere. And the same thing is true for the Israelis, to stop violence against Palestinians. Secondly, we need to restore the situation in the West Bank to the way it was in September 2000meaning a withdrawal of Israeli troops, a redeployment of Palestinian forces, a return of control to the Palestinian Authority. Thirdly, we need to re-engage in all spheres of negotiation and co-operation: economic, financial, security, water, day-to-day life. And a release of prisoners.

For a lasting ceasefire, how can the Palestinian Authority move forward on the issue

of disarming the militant groups?

We’re dealing with the internal Palestinian situation on as many parallel tracks as we can. It’s very complex. But we’ve just had elections. We’re inviting all parties to participate—Hamas won the majority of councils in Gaza. They and the other groups are invited to be part of the political pluralism, to abandon authority pluralism. We are determined to build our political system on the rule of law, pluralism and the ballot box.

How big a role has Israel’s planned pullout from Gaza played in the new détente? Is the fact that Israel already seems to have a summer timetable driving this new process?

If they want partnership, we need to sit down and decide how the Gaza disengagement is going to be part of the road map

for peace [the plan submitted by the U.S. in 2003]. Because for us, the West Bank and Gaza are a single territorial unit. We have a much more important timetable: the timetable of2005, specified in the road map, for an end to Israeli occupation. The U.S. has to abandon its practice of forming its Mideast policy in terms of what Israel can or cannot do. It should adopt a policy that reflects what is needed here: a meaningful peace process that will end the occupation. This is doable.

Public expectations are rising.

I’m always worried about that: taking people into the ttees and not having ladders to come down. We’re still trying to establish what can and can’t be done. We need the help of the international community: economically, on the question of security, on reforms. It’s not so much a question of expectations as one of showing people what can be done on the ground.

One of those internal issues is government corruption. What are you doing about that?

The people who voted for Abbas don’t expect him to have a magic wand, but they expect him to begin the process. To steer a course of building the constitution, ending corruption, restoring the rule of law and public order, accountability, transparency, free elections. People want to see progress. And we’re determined to give them that.

Is your government simply calling for a return to the road map, or are there now additional demands?

At this stage, I’m simply looking to re-engage with my Israeli colleagues, to reestablish a partnership. I don’t have expectations for mutual trust overnight, but we must begin. Now is the time.