Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said an anticipated new round of peace talks will fall apart if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t extend a freeze on West Bank settlement building.
“If we launch the talks and then Mr. Netanyahu will choose to poke us in the eye by tendering and ending the moratorium, he will have killed the negotiations,” Erakat said in an interview today in his office in Jericho. He said the two sides were “very close” to restarting direct peace talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a 10-month freeze on settlement construction, which expires on Sept. 26, saying it was aimed at coaxing Palestinians to return to direct peace talks. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said yesterday that efforts to renew the talks, which ended 20 months ago, are “close.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he won’t agree to direct talks with Israel until it stops all settlement construction. Erakat, 55, said the Palestinian Authority has been working with the U.S. to find a formula that will enable the talks to proceed.
“The settlements will be a point of friction throughout the process,” Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar- Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said in a telephone interview. “Netanyahu cannot have a complete moratorium and the Palestinians will say any building is a violation. I expect that if there is a rational and well thought-out approach, the parties will agree to disagree.”
The Israeli leader has said that all issues will be up for negotiation in direct talks.
“In peace talks, the status of settlements can be discussed,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said in a telephone interview today.
The settlement freeze excludes public buildings, such as kindergartens, and some 3,000 housing units that previously received government approval. Netanyahu, 60, also said the government would continue to build in all areas of Jerusalem. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, to be the capital of a future state.
President Barack Obama has been trying to persuade Netanyahu and Abbas, 75, to move beyond the indirect talks they have been conducting since May through U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, a former senator who aided peace efforts in Northern Ireland.
Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were suspended when Israel began a military operation in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in what it said was an attempt to stop rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled territory on its southern towns and cities.
Hamas, an Islamic movement considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel, violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections the previous year, ending a partnership government with Abbas’s Fatah party.
Gazans belonging to Hamas and other militant groups fired about 3,200 rockets and mortars into Israel in 2008, according to the Israeli army.
Erakat, a Jericho native, studied political science at San Francisco State University and earned a doctorate in peace and conflict studies at the University of Bradford in the U.K. He keeps a San Francisco Giants cap on a table of personal mementos in his office, beside photos of him with Obama and with Pope Benedict XVI.
If the two sides revive direct talks, Erakat said he will lead the Palestinian negotiating team. Ahmed Qureia, the authority’s former prime minister, led the team in the previous round when Ehud Olmert was Israel’s premier. Erakat has been involved in negotiations since the 1991 Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid and is now chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiation Affairs Department.
Erakat expressed confidence that Abbas will be able to heal the schism with Hamas if peace talks are successful. Failure will wipe out any hope that Palestinian moderates can resolve the conflict with Israel peacefully, he said.
“If I have an endgame agreement with Israel, Gaza and the West Bank will be a single territory,” Erakat said. “If I don’t have an endgame with Israel, I will disappear.”