Palestinian leaders are counting on President Barack Obama’s visit this month to bolster peace prospects with Israel and help stem the frustration that has led to renewed violence, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
“Take the element of hope from the minds of Palestinians and Israelis and you’re going to have disasters,” Erekat said in an interview at his office in Jericho, days after returning from preparatory talks in Washington. “We’ve been there before and we don’t want this to happen.”
The Israeli government is getting ready for Obama to arrive March 20 on a three-day visit, though no official schedule has been released. The trip -- Obama’s first to Israel as president -- comes after a diplomatic stalemate that has eroded hopes for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Recent episodes of violence have fueled calls for a new Palestinian uprising.
The president will probably meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the trip’s political sensitivity. The visit has been billed by the White House as a “listening tour” that won’t introduce a new peace plan.
Secretary of State John Kerry met Abbas for lunch today in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, where they discussed “political developments,” according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.
Any boost that Abbas may get from hosting Obama will quickly dissipate unless it’s accompanied by a U.S. push against settlement expansion and new ideas for a peace agreement, said Mukhemer Abu Sada, a Palestinian political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
“The legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas is deteriorating and the violence we’re starting to see again is an indication that people are growing impatient,” Abu Sada said in a telephone interview. “Hosting Obama won’t help him for long if it’s not backed up by signs that a peace agreement is in the works.”
Clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops have increased in the past month, galvanized by hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners and the death of a West Bank man in Israeli custody amid charges he was tortured. Israeli authorities said the man, Arafat Jaradat, 30, died of a heart attack and was not physically harmed after his arrest last month for throwing stones at soldiers.
Israelis warn that traveling to Ramallah will entangle Obama in the question of Palestinian statehood, which was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly last November against U.S. objections. An official welcome for U.S. leader to the State of Palestine by Abbas may annoy Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and turn into ammunition for Obama’s critics in Congress.
“The Obama administration opposed the upgrade of the Palestinian Authority to the status of a non-member observer state in the General Assembly,” said Dore Gold, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to the UN, who now runs the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “Should the Palestinians elect to adopt a diplomatic protocol based on the results of that vote, it would put the Obama administration in an awkward position.”
Former President George W. Bush traveled to both Ramallah and Bethlehem when he met Abbas in January 2008. Obama visited Abbas in Ramallah later that year during his campaign for president.
Erekat said Palestinian leaders are determined to make sure the Obama visit goes smoothly, though he declined to discuss specific arrangements or confirm that the president will meet Abbas in Ramallah.
“No one benefits more from the success of the peace process than Palestinians and no one loses more from the absence of the peace process than the Palestinians,” Erekat said in the March 1 interview. “We plan to exert every possible effort in order to ensure the success of President Obama.”
Still, Erekat, 57, gave no indication that Abbas will ease his insistence that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem to revive peace negotiations. Talks broke down after Abbas and Netanyahu met three times in September 2010 after prodding from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“How can anyone succeed when you see an intensification of settlement construction -- 17 percent in 2012, more than any previous year since 1967,” Erekat said. “That’s not negotiation, that’s dictation.”
Netanyahu, 63, instituted a partial settlement freeze that expired two weeks after his 2010 meetings with Abbas and has refused to stop construction since. The Israeli leader, who is negotiating to form a governing coalition that would make him prime minister for a third term, has said he supports a two-state solution under a series of conditions.
Those include assurances that the Palestinian state is demilitarized, renounces the right of return for refugees, formally recognizes Israel as a Jewish state and allows Israel to keep full control of Jerusalem and major settlements.
Erekat, a native of Jericho who earned two political science degrees at San Francisco State University, suffered a heart attack last year after more than two decades as a negotiator, spokesman and adviser for Abbas and former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Amid the lull in peace talks, Erekat jogs an hour a day on a treadmill and has written two books in Arabic now awaiting publication. The first, on Islamic negotiating, describes al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and Hamas -- the rival Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip -- as “alien to Islamic behavior.” The other, titled “Changes in the Arab World as They Impact on Israel and Palestine,” argues that “nobody should be afraid of” the Arab Spring, “especially Israel,” he said.
Erekat says he believes a two-state solution is inevitable and is determined to bring about a peace agreement.
“I’m trying my best but I’m failing,” Erekat said. “I hope we’ll succeed one day.”