In Saeb Erekat, ‘There Is No Life In The One You’re Calling’ لا حياة لمن تنادي

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Saeb Erekat loosening his collar at a session during Masarat ninth annual conference (22 Aug 2020)

If a prophetic voice in politics is both honest about government policy and honest about where that government can go from there, it is safe to say that Saeb Erekat’s voice does not measure up. Not by a long shot.

This is painfully evidenced in the dialogue broadcast between him and Hani Al-Masri, the highly respected Director General of Masarat — The Palestinian Center for Policy Research & Strategic Studies, during its ninth annual conference titled “Palestine after Trump’s vision: What’s to be done?”

Saeb Erekat has been secretary general of the defunct PLO Executive Committee since July 2015 and is the “chief negotiator” of the Palestinian Authority (PA). (See “Who are You?”: The PLO and the Limits of Representation by Osamah Khalil, 2013)

The audio in the first minute or so of the video recording of the conversation is intermittent. The recording also ends abruptly after several questions are taken from the audience in three locations: Gaza, the conference hall of The Red Crescent Society in al-Bireh and the zoom broadcast.

Judging by Erekat’s performance during the exchange with Al Masri, the fact that his responses are cut off at the end is no loss. (Later I learned that Erekat, after listening to pointed questions from nine participants, left the session without addressing a single one.)

“The answers to be provided by this promising and important conference will be coming from other sessions, not from this one.”

Despite the audio problems at the beginning, the gist of Hani Al-Masri’s first question is clear: Let’s not drown in the enumeration of achievements [presumably of the PA]; let’s hear you on the issue of where the Palestinian Authority has gone wrong while Israel was breaking all [Oslo] agreements and obscuring its racist and occupation facts on the ground. The PA has declared all these agreements null and void but has yet to rescind its recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a state. Why is that?

In response, Saeb Erekat states that he is not there to “put on the record any [political] positions or to give a lecture.” He does say grudgingly that the Palestinian failure to specify in negotiations what would happen if the five-year interim period of the Oslo accords ended in failure — i.e., without reaching a comprehensive peace agreement — was a mistake.

But from the outset, Erekat denies the value in analyzing mistakes and hints at the possibility of writing a book in which such things might be discussed.

“Saeb Erekat appears to be blind to the fact that, in bolstering the state of Israel, Trump and Kushner rely heavily on Palestinian rejection as part of the plan in order to blame the PA.”

Insisting (falsely, as it turns out, since he is not receptive to the audience or the interviewer’s remarks) that his purpose in attending the conference is to brainstorm collectively about where to go from here, Erekat launches into defining the current Palestinian political morass, not as a function of a failure or miscalculation on the Part of the PA, but rather as a brilliant diabolical move on the part of Jared Kushner in managing to entice the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to join him in dismembering the PA’s strategy, in effect since 2002, which he describes as a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Saeb Erekat appears blind to the fact that, in bolstering the state of Israel, Trump and Kushner rely heavily on Palestinian rejection as part of the plan in order to accuse the PA of squandering non-existent “opportunities” — non-existent from the very beginning, not just now.

Erekat also lays blame on the Arab League for not yet issuing a statement condemning the UAE move, which, he says, goes against the League’s charter. (See Why are Arab states muted over the UAE-Israel deal?) Additionally, he rails against the “overt Arab Zionism” in evidence on Twitter and other media. He goes on:

Are we ready to move on to the next stage away from the thinking that has imprisoned us since the sixties [Erekat does not explain here what that is]? It must be understood that Palestine and Jerusalem are more important than the capitals of all other Arab and Muslim countries [again, he does not explain why that may be so]. We will not be offered as sacrificial lambs on the altars of these nations that break down the politics in this region. A leader must tell his people what they need to hear, not what they must hear. The Trump deal is a liquidation program that accepts the Zionist narrative of a greater Israel begun in 1917.

After that Erekat begins a mean-spirited attack on “fault finders,” using the phrase in English. He derisively questions the motivations of those who criticize the PA strategy. Our focal point, he insists, is international law and International legitimacy.

At this point, Hani Al Masri interrupts Erekat and says there are several objections from the floor to the effect that Erekat has not answered the question put to him. How did we arrive at the sorry stage Erekat himself is describing?

Al Masri presses on with his questions. Why continue to accept negotiations as a tactic? Why has Abbas announced that if Israel abandons its annexation plan, the PA would go back to embracing the accords? Israel’s defacto annexation is visible to us daily on the ground. When is it appropriate to negotiate and when is it not?

Since negotiations have failed, Al Masri points out, we should be looking for an international conference without Trump, but how can that work without collective pressure from all Palestinian parties and from the Arab peoples if not their rulers? How can this work without a comprehensive all-inclusive political program that also reflects an end to the division with Gaza?

I wish I could say Al Masri was able to elicit any useful observations or insights or accountability from Saeb Erekat, whether in self-criticism or in awareness of the issues on the minds of Al Masri and many of those participating in or listening to the conference proceedings from around the world. His unseemly defensiveness only got worse.

Given Erekat’s place in the history of the PA, I was expecting him to show no more than a glimmer of understanding of the nature of the dead end at which the PA is now blindly staring. But he appeared incapable even of that. The answers to be provided by this promising and important conference will be coming from other sessions, not from this one.

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Ruba Masrouji asking questions of Saeb Erekat at Masarat’s ninth annual conference in Ramallah

The last person on the tape to ask the questions on everybody’s minds is Ruba Masrouji:

The output we see today is predicated on the input you fed 25–30 years ago. That’s what brought us to our current situation. You were part of that. Admitting guilt is a virtue (الاعتراف بالذنب فضيله) and it is the first step leading to change. I hope you do that, even if just in a book you write.
Our relations with the international community — what, at this point, are we expecting from them?
The PLO, fixing it, what to do? What are the practical steps? We haven’t seen those.

Unfortunately, as far as Saeb Erekat is concerned, to use another Arabic proverb, لا حياة لمن تنادي: “there is no life in the one you’re calling.”

Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank.

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