Read the full transcript of Head to Head - Have Palestinian leaders failed their people? below:
Mehdi Hasan (VO): Disappointment, frustration and anger. Common sentiments on the Palestinian street. But not only are they fed up with Israel, they are fed up with their own leaders too. Many say the Palestinian Authority is corrupt, oppressive and is yet to deliver an end to occupation.
I’m Mehdi Hasan and I’ve come here to the Oxford Union to go Head to Head with Dr Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and influential advisor to Presidents Arafat and Abbas. But today I’m going to challenge him on his strategy, his failure to achieve peace and whether the Palestinians need new leaders.
Tonight I will also be joined by Professor Rosemary Hollis, a leading expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict and director of the Olive Tree Programme.
Mehdi Hasan: Ladies and Gentlemen, our guest tonight, Dr Saeb Erekat.
Mehdi Hasan: Good evening.
Saeb Erekat: Good evening to you.
Mehdi Hasan: Saeb, you were a Palestinian negotiator at Madrid in 1991, at Camp David in 2000, at Annapolis in 2007. Let’s begin by dealing with this question: What did all those negotiations actually achieve? Given the occupation is still going on, stronger than ever before, surely they were a complete and utter waste of time?
Saeb Erekat: Oh, I disagree with you. I think I was 12 years old when the occupation came to my hometown, Jericho. Palestine was cancelled off the map as back as 1948, and I think today when we introduce something about the state of Palestine in the UN, 165 nation states stands tall to vote for us. Mehdi, I was born as a Palestinian and I’m proud of it, for one reason: to put my country with East Jerusalem as capital back to the map.
Mehdi Hasan: But what did those negotiations - 20-odd years of Oslo peace process negotiations - what did they actually achieve on the ground? How did they visibly improve the lives of an ordinary Palestinian family in Jericho, or Nablus, or Ramallah, or Gaza City?
Saeb Erekat: Well, the purpose of the negotiations is to have the people of Jericho, Nablus, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Ramallah live like you live in Britain. Live normally. To get rid of this ugly occupation. To end this apartheid regime. I’m trying my best to save lives of Israelis and Palestinians. I’m trying my best to deliver a two-state solution.
Mehdi Hasan: And my question is: Is your best working? Because the occupation seems more entrenched than it was in 1993. Over the last 20 years, 7,000 Palestinians have been killed; 12,000 Palestinian homes demolished; an extra 250,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. Israel has been able to carry that out. The argument that’s put forward…
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] They, Israel…
Mehdi Hasan: …because you, the Palestinians, gave them cover. You came to the table. You allowed - you bought them time. [EREKAT LAUGHS] They carried on expanding and building settlements. And you gave them cover.
Saeb Erekat: I can’t give them cover. I’m under their occupation and since Eve negotiated Adam, I’m the most disadvantaged negotiator in the history of mankind. I have no army, no navy, no air force, my people are fragmented, I’m alone. But the point of the matter: don’t blame those who try to make peace, don’t blame the negotiations because the negotiation’s not the end, it’s the means to achieve the end. Blame these Israeli governments and blame these Western governments who still insist on treating Israel as a country above the laws of man.
Mehdi Hasan: I would share that analysis, but you’re the one who chooses to engage in these one-sided negotiations.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Why do I choose…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You’re the one who doesn’t walk away from the table.
Saeb Erekat: Why, why do I choose…why do I choose to negotiate?
Mehdi Hasan: If I negotiate with a guy for 20 years, and for 20 years I’m banging my head on a brick wall, I might say, and some say, “This is pointless”.
Saeb Erekat: Negotiations is a civilised instrument people use in conflict. And with the matrix of interest between conflicting parties mature to the point where the price of peace is much cheaper than the price of war, we have peace.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well on that, you mentioned civilised instrument. Just to be clear, because there are negotiations ongoing, have you completely given up the right to armed resistance against this military occupation that you describe, which some would say is a right claimed under international law, which is a right claimed by resistance groups throughout history. I’m just wondering where you stand on violence.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Believe me, I…
Mehdi Hasan: Does the Palestinian movement under the leadership of President Abbas recognise the right to resist?
Saeb Erekat: There is no single house in Palestine, including my household, that didn’t lose a loved one, that doesn’t have a loved one in prison. As long as there is occupation, there’ll be resistance. That’s our right…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] So the Palestinians do you have the right?
Saeb Erekat: Absolutely we have the right. Absolutely we have the right.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay.
Saeb Erekat: Now, if we want to pursue peace, to save lives of Israelis and Palestinians, is that wrong?
Mehdi Hasan: A lot of Palestinians who I speak to - I was in the West Bank a couple of years ago - they say, “We’re an occupied people. By negotiating with the occupier you are giving the impression to the world that this is a split between two equal parties, rather than one occupier, as you say, and one occupied people. You are helping the Israeli narrative.”
Saeb Erekat: No, I don’t think so. I’m not saying life is about fairness and justice. As I told you from the beginning, when I entered here, Mehdi, I was born as a Palestinian and I’m proud of being a Palestinian, for one reason: to bring my country, with East Jerusalem as capital, back to the map.
Mehdi Hasan: In your two decades as a top Palestinian negotiator, I - correct me if I’m wrong - you’ve resigned from your post four times, most recently in October…
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Eight. Eight, eight.
Mehdi Hasan: Eight times? [LAUGHTER] I believe you’ve threatened resignation several times. So my question is: What credibility do you have as a negotiator if you keep resigning and then keep coming back to the table? How can people take you seriously?
Saeb Erekat: Last time I resigned was in protest of Mr Netanyahu. Since we began negotiations, he added 10,558 housing settlement units. That’s four times the natural growth of New York. He killed 36 Palestinians in cold blood…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Which is fine, so if you resign, but why go back again?
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] He demolished 219 homes and then I submit my resignation to my president…
Mehdi Hasan: Yeah.
Saeb Erekat: All right? And then my resignation is still standing, by the way, but I don’t leave my office before some replacement, and I hope they find a replacement.
Mehdi Hasan: So you’re willing to stand aside tomorrow?
Saeb Erekat: No, not tomorrow. Yesterday. [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: Right now, you are the chief Palestinian negotiator…
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] That’s right.
Mehdi Hasan: …with your resignation letter unopened. What are the current round of peace talks that the world is watching, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, what do you hope they will achieve? How will they be different to all of the failed peace talks and summits and conferences that have come and gone before?
Saeb Erekat: No one benefits more from John Kerry’s success than Palestinians, and no one loses more from John Kerry’s failure than Palestinians.
Mehdi Hasan: Yep.
Saeb Erekat: That’s the truth. So we’re exerting every possible effort in order to ensure the success of John Kerry. This man, I’ve known John for 26 years, all right? And he knows what makes me tick.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you believe he’s an honest broker in this?
Saeb Erekat: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: John Kerry is a man, Saeb, who once said, “I will never compromise America’s special relationship with Israel. I will never pressure Israel to make concessions that will compromise its securities. He called Yasser Arafat, your former boss, an “impediment to the peace process, an outlaw to the peace process.” He doesn’t sound very neutral to me.
Saeb Erekat: I don’t think he’s a member of the PLO, John Kerry. You asked the question about an American secretary of state being fair or not. I’m telling you this time…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] So he’s changed? You think he’s changed…
Saeb Erekat: I, no, no, I…he’s killing the war. I entered negotiations with him on the basis of a letter given to me on July 29 in his office in Washington, saying that the basis of these negotiations, two states on the 1967 lines, all core issues - Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees - will be negotiated without exceptions, no end-term solutions, no end-term agreements, and that’s what he said, so…
Mehdi Hasan: And how much time are you giving him?
Saeb Erekat: He has ‘til April 29 and we will not extend the negotiations for one minute.
Mehdi Hasan: Quite a few Palestinians are worried that you’re going to give up the right of return, as it’s known, as enshrined in international law. The so-called Palestine Papers, the leaked collection of confidential documents about the peace process in 2011 suggested you and Mahmoud Abbas have signed up to Israel accepting only around 10,000 Palestinian refugees over 10 years, out of a total Palestinian refugee population estimated at somewhere around five million.
Saeb Erekat: I told Olmert, “No refugee delegated me or mandated me to negotiate on his behalf.” Number one, this refugee did not become a refugee because of a tsunami or volcano or an earthquake. This came as a result of the creation of Israel. Israel should bear the moral and legal responsibility. Secondly, you said an international mechanism, and this international mechanism go to every single refugee and asks him the choice…
Mehdi Hasan: So the 10,000 is a made-up number?
Saeb Erekat: Wait a minute. No, no, the 10,000 - hear me, please! Employ your hearing skills, Mehdi.
Mehdi Hasan: You employ your speaking skills and I’ll get an answer…
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Okay, okay, I’m trying my best to tell you that the answer I gave to him: “No refugee mandated me, this is the free choice of every single refugee. Number one, the right to return to Palestine with compensation, return to Israel with compensation, remaining where he is with compensation”. And this is how you win claims. Because if I were an Israeli negotiator, Mehdi, I’d demand two things from Palestinians: end of conflict, end of claims. How can I end claims without this refugee practicing his choice?
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s stick with the current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his office. He has said that there can be no peace deal - John Kerry or otherwise - unless the Palestinians sign up to recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Are you willing to do that as part of these negotiations?
Saeb Erekat: I will never recognise Israel as a Jewish state.
Mehdi Hasan: Why not?
Saeb Erekat: Because I have recognised the state of Israel’s right to exist in exchange for future recognition, in 1993. And nations have registered their name at the UN, the name of Israel, state of Israel. Now, you know why they want me to recognise it as a Jewish state? I am the son of the Natufians, who built my hometown Jericho 10,000 years ago. I am the son of the Arab Kenonites, who were there 6,000 years before Ershabenon came and burnt my hometown Jericho. What the Israelis want me to do when I recognise Israel as a Jewish state, they want me to change my narrative, my history, my religion.
Mehdi Hasan: And you won’t do it.
Saeb Erekat: I will not do it.
Mehdi Hasan: But if your friend John Kerry says you have to do it, as part of this deal?
Saeb Erekat: No force on Earth will change, will make me change my narrative.
Mehdi Hasan: So is it, and are you saying that as Saeb Erekat, or are you saying that as the chief Palestinian negotiator?
Saeb Erekat: I’m saying that on behalf of 11 million Palestinians. I’m their Chief Negotiator.
Mehdi Hasan: So let me deploy my speaking skills…
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: …and ask you a very clear question…
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Go ahead.
Mehdi Hasan: …that you can answer very clearly for everyone here. Is it a deal-breaker, if the deal is that you have to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, you will say, “No, see you later. Bring on April 29th.”
Saeb Erekat: Number one: you’re right. I cannot accept Israel as a Jewish state. Number two: I cannot accept any document without East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine. It’s meaningless for Palestine to emerge as a state without East Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine. And what I mean by East Jerusalem is the holy Aqsa mosque and the Holy Sepul-Sepulchre and the Old City and the six square kilometres that existed in 1967. I cannot accept any formula for refugees other than the free choice of every single refugee making the choice. I want to end conflict. I want to end claims. And then, you said, “20 years Palestinians have been negotiating, Israelis doing settlements and so on”. Had we accepted what you are trying to promote, what people are saying about us, why would Arafat have been sieged and killed under siege? Why are they calling us non-partners?
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Do you believe...?
Saeb Erekat: Why this smear campaign? And yes, I believe Yasser Arafat was killed.
Mehdi Hasan: You’re saving me questions as well, brilliant. So, you believe Yasser Arafat was killed by Israel?
Saeb Erekat: To be honest with you, Yasser Arafat was sieged by Israel. The Prime Minister of Israel, Sharon said, “We must get rid of Arafat.” The Defence Minister of Israel, Mofaz said, “We must get rid of Arafat.” A person in my position should not jump to conclusions before, without evidence. I do not have evidence. But my heart knows that, that Yasser Arafat was sieged and killed by Israel.
Mehdi Hasan: So your heart says, “Israelis killed my president.” Your head says, “I’m going to negotiate with them in good faith.”
Saeb Erekat: I’m going to negotiate with them in good faith because I want to save the lives of my children and grandchildren.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you worry about your own life, then?
Saeb Erekat: I think we’re all in danger. Abu Mazen is in danger – he’s being threatened today. There are ministers in the Israeli Cabinet who are saying, “We must get rid of Abu Mazen.”
Mehdi Hasan: Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, for those of our viewers who aren’t familiar with the other name, he’s in the 10th year of a four-year presidential term.
Saeb Erekat: Yes. Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: His presidency expired in 2009.
Saeb Erekat: Yes, no, it didn’t, it didn’t expire.
Mehdi Hasan: The term came to an end.
Saeb Erekat: No, you, technically speaking, you may argue this…
Mehdi Hasan: No, actually speaking.
Saeb Erekat: …but in our basic law, it says the president will be elected for four years, and he will continue to be the president until he shakes hands with the new elected president.
Mehdi Hasan: Who is himself. [LAUGHTER]
Saeb Erekat: We, Abu Mazen, wanted elections to happen, and believe me, he is the one who is not glued to a seat.
Mehdi Hasan: Sharif Nashashibi is a Palestinian journalist based here in the UK. He’s also an analyst of Arab and media affairs. You’ve been listening to Saeb Erekat speak about the past 20 years and the current negotiations. He says there’s no alternative - people are unfairly criticising him. What’s your take on this?
Sharif Nashashibi: Well, it’s interesting he brings up holding Israel to account and international mechanisms. Almost a year-and-a-half ago, we upgraded our status at the UN. This allowed us entry into the International Criminal Court. We could take Israel to court. Since then, you and the PA have been threatening to do that, and you haven’t. How many more settlers do we need to accept, how many houses need to be demolished, how many people need to be killed before we say, “Enough”? We have a weapon in our hands that we’re not using. It’s a potent weapon. And international law is on our side. Why have we not joined the ICC? Why are we not taking Israel to court? This is the alternative we should be pursuing.
Saeb Erekat: I think you’re absolutely right. A mistake was made by us. And I personally take the responsibility for delaying this accession nine months. I made the deal personally with John Kerry that if Netanyahu gives me the 104 prisoners before Oslo, we will refrain from going to these agencies for nine months. I made the deal. I know it’s a heavy price. These 104 prisoners deserve this price.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well let’s also hear from Professor Rosemary Hollis, from City University, teaches International Politics, one of the leading experts on the Middle East conflict in the UK.
Rosemary Hollis: Why are you, are these talks not also focusing on the issues in legal terms?
Saeb Erekat: I have 22 lawyers on my team. They’re Palestinians from all over Earth. From Chile, from Argentina, from London, from Paris, from Harvard, from Italy, from Canada. The top of the top. Palestinians who left their offices in New York, in Harvard, in London, and came, and they’re living in Ramallah, paying their own rates to serve their country.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, can I bring in, also on our panel tonight, is Professor Manuel Hassasian, who is the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom. I want to ask you this: Saeb says the US and the UK governments can be seen as – he says John Kerry’s an impartial broker. You work as an envoy for your people abroad. Do you really see Western governments as impartial brokers in this conflict?
Manuel Hassasian: First of all, let me challenge the line of questioning here. Because, you know, you have been attacking the strategy of the Palestinians of negotiations. We have realised in 1988 in our 19th PNC that armed struggle is not going to achieve the Palestinian independent state because we were portrayed in the international community by the Zionist propaganda machine that we are terrorists. We are not terrorists. We said we will politically accommodate through negotiations and practice our universal right for self-determination. We have seen, along the practices that the top dog has been unequivocally supported by what is so-called a third party. But we haven’t seen the European Union playing an imperative role in creating that balance.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, back in November 2009, you told reporters that the time may have come for President Abbas to, quote, “tell his people the truth that with the continuation of settlement activities, the two-state solution is no longer an option.” Those are your words from ’09. There have since been tens of thousands of Israeli settlers added to the West Bank since you made that statement, so why do you continue to push for a two-state solution, which you, yourself, four years ago said, “Time’s up”?
Saeb Erekat: I agree, I agree with you and I told, actually my last…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You agree with yourself, you mean, because I’m quoting your words to you. [LAUGHTER]
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Yeah, I know, yeah. I agree with your line of questioning now…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Yes.
Saeb Erekat: …‘cause I said that.
Mehdi Hasan: Yes. You did
Saeb Erekat: And actually my last resignation was because I asked Abu Mazen in November 5 to sign on the accession and he refused and I told him the following: “As much as we put a strategy and Netanyahu puts a strategy, Netanyahu’s strategy has three faults: number one, he wants a Palestinian Authority without an authority. Number two, he wants a cost-free occupation. Number three, he wants to keep Gaza of the Palestinian space. Which means that Netanyahu is working towards one state, two systems, not a two-state solution.
There is no such thing as a one-state solution. There is a one-state reality. But Israel has three options. Option number one, my option, two states, 1967. Number two, if they wanna call my hometown Jericho “Yeriho,” and refer to me as Mar Erekat, in Hebrew “Mr,” talk to me about it. And once I say this, they will tell me, “You evil Palestinians! You will undermine the Jewish nature of Israel!” So you don’t want two states, you don’t want one state, and what’s developing on the ground is the third of Israel’s option, which is apartheid, and no one in the world has the stomach for such an apartheid.
Today, in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, there are roads I cannot use as a Christian and a Muslim Palestinian. Only Jews and Israelis can use. There is a worst apartheid system today in the West Bank and East Jerusalem then that which existed in South Africa. My option is to live and let live. I really want a two-state solution.
Mehdi Hasan: And if it doesn’t happen what is your Plan B, if negotiations fail on April 29 what are you going to do?
Saeb Erekat: My Plan B, Abu Mazen will sign the 63 letters of accession, including the Rome Statute, and I told the Israelis, “If you worry about the International Criminal Court, stop committing crimes.” There are Jewish kids today, ladies and gentlemen, they come from London, from Paris, from New York. And they come to the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They burn trees, they burn homes, they burn mosques. And they believe, when they are doing this, they are closer to God. This is very, very wrong to any society. And these are war crimes.
Mehdi Hasan: So that’s your, that’s going to be your pursuit post-April 29?
Saeb Erekat: Exactly. And then, once we do this, I’m, I’m afraid the Authority will collapse. The Palestinian Authority, the one you know, cannot be sustained in its current form because BiBi Netanyahu is changing the role of the PA. The PA was born to transfer Palestinians from occupation to independence. That’s the task. Now BiBi Netanyahu wants the Authority to pay salaries and to do security and so on. It’s not sustainable anymore. And then, if you want me to take you into the scenario of after that, it’s going to be very ugly. And mark my words: what’s happening in the Arab world is Arabs are democratising and anyone who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist, and this is the best thing that happened to me as a Palestinian, all right? It’s going to be painful, it’s going to be long, it’s going to be bloody. We need two things to defeat extremism in this region: One, democracy in the Arab world. Secondly, drying the swamp of the Israeli occupation. You know I have six grandchildren? The youngest is three months old and the oldest is five years old. I’ve done everything humanly possible to avoid the road I went through for them. And the sad, the sad thing that aches my heart is I really don’t want my children to be suicide bombers. This is too much to do a job for it.
Mehdi Hasan: You say you don’t want them to be suicide bombers. There are lots of other ways of resisting – non-violent resistance. One form is the boycott movement – the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions – the BDS campaign against Israel. You’ve referred tonight, several times, to Israel being worse than apartheid, and yet, in apartheid South Africa, the ANC, the national liberation movement there, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, they supported the international boycott movement against South Africa. You say Israel’s worse than South Africa, and yet, you and Mahmoud Abbas say, “Don’t boycott Israel. We don’t support the BDS movement.” How do you explain that contradiction?
Saeb Erekat: We are with every single legal move any nation wants to take…
Mehdi Hasan: What about non-nation groups? People, movements?
Saeb Erekat: Non-nation…People, individuals, nations, groups….
Mehdi Hasan: In South Africa President Mahmoud Abbas said, “We do not support a boycott against Israel”.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] President Mahmoud Abbas said the following: “I’m not asking people to boycott the Israeli universities or so on, because I’m engaged with them for these nine months.”
Mehdi Hasan: Rosemary Hollis, we’ve been talking about one state, two states. Given where we are now, do you still think a two state solution is viable, possible?
Rosemary Hollis: It’s very difficult to see how it would work in such a manner that all the Palestinians, including all the refugees, could agree to it. I think we’re asking you, Dr Erekat, could the Palestinians not improve their go-negotiating stance?
Saeb Erekat: Usually what we do in our negotiating behaviour, usually we put positions of what we want. This time we chose another negotiating behaviour. December 8, 2013, a letter from President Mahmoud Abbas to President Obama, I’m revealing it now. January 4, 2014: a letter from President Abbas to John Kerry. We said in these letters, Abu Mazen said what, not what we want, not what we can, what we cannot do. This is it; it’s the moment of truth. Believe me, negotiations are over. We don’t need negotiations. It’s time for decisions now. So today it’s all up to John Kerry and President Obama.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay. Sharif, you’re a Palestinian, would you rather live in a – this whole debate about one state, two states – would you rather live in a single bi-national secular state, or would you rather live in a Palestinian state next to an Israeli state?
Sharif Nashashibi: I mean, the debate has moved on long ago, not – it used to be about whether one would prefer one state or two states. Now the reality is, whether two states is possible, not preferable.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you believe it’s possible?
Sharif Nashashibi: No. We passed that years ago. It’s not possible. The occupation and colonisation of Palestine is so entrenched, I don’t see how that can be reversed. I mean, if you look at the withdrawal from Gaza, there was national uproar in Israel about the withdrawal of several thousand settlers. We’re talking about several hundred thousand settlers in the West Bank. How is Israel going to…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Ok well let me put that point to Ambassador Hassasian. It’s just not possible to bring about two states, which you’re negotiating for.
Manuel Hassasian: The only feasible solution is the two-state solution, and the dismantling of settlements is not that big a deal, because in second track negotiations with the Israelis, we have managed to come out with many solutions. The question of equality, in terms of transfer of land and what have you, is manageable, my dear friend.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well we’re going to take a break there. We’ve been talking about the peace process and negotiations with Saeb Erekat. In Part two we’re going to talk about what’s going on in the occupied territories of the Palestinian Authority, accusations of corruption and human rights abuses have been made. And we’re also going to hear more from our very loquacious guest and from our very patient audience here in the Oxford Union. Join us for Part two of Head to Head.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome back, you’re watching Head to Head on Al Jazeera. We’re here in the Oxford Union with Dr Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. We’ve been talking about the peace process, about negotiations with John Kerry, about two states versus one state. I was in the West Bank in 2012, and I found a lot of Palestinians, a lot of young Palestinians, who were angry and frustrated not just with the Israelis and the occupation and with Western governments but also with the Palestinian Authority, with Palestinian security forces, over human rights abuses, over a lack of democracy, lack of transparency, corruption allegations. You must hear the same thing when you’re travelling through Jericho or Nablus or Ramallah.
Saeb Erekat: Well, actually I have almost three demonstrations against me personally every week…
Mehdi Hasan: [LAUGHS] Okay.
Saeb Erekat: [LAUGHTER]… so I hear much more than this. Look, there were those Palestinians who tried to abuse their offices to get things they should not - corruption. But I think we are the first Arab society in the last 1,000 years that in the year 2012-2013, three ministers appeared in front of the corruption courts, and they were sentenced. I’m not saying we don’t make mistakes, I’m not saying that there are not those who are trying to abuse their offices, I am not saying there are not human rights violations, I am not saying there are not mistakes we are committing. But with these mistakes happening, we are doing everything humanly possible to try not to repeat these mistakes, to learn from them.
Mehdi Hasan: You say that, but last year the polling in the West Bank showed four out of five West Bankers believed the Abbas administration, the Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen Palestinian Authority government, was corrupt.
Saeb Erekat: People have a court in Ramallah called the Corruption Court. If anybody has a case against anyone, they can carry this case and file with the evidence and go to the court. And they can submit something against President Mahmoud Abbas personally, if they wish to, against Saeb Erekat, against anyone - that’s their given right.
Mehdi Hasan: You say you can submit things against President Abbas personally…
Saeb Erekat: Yes we can.
Mehdi Hasan: A leading Palestinian businessman, Mohamed al-Sabawi, just recently was arrested by security forces, held for nine hours in a prison cell merely for calling on President Abbas to resign. That sounds almost like a police state to me.
Saeb Erekat: That’s a mistake, what happened with this Sabawi, and Abu Mazen personally intervened to release him.
Mehdi Hasan: What about the other people who have been detained without trial? Hundreds and hundreds of cases.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] There were, no, there were 63 cases.
Mehdi Hasan: 63?
Saeb Erekat: Middle East International and Human Rights Watch have submitted to us. And believe me, we have followed it case by case.
Mehdi Hasan: The Independent Commission for Human Rights says 685 arbitrary arrests in the West Bank in 2012 alone.
Saeb Erekat: Well there are arrests, we have, you know, just as I told you, we have normal people who can commit crimes...
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] But it’s not normal, this is arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture, sleep deprivation, beatings, shootings…Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have all documented this.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Wait a minute, we have jails. We have people who have been arrested. We’re not a country. We have so many restrictions, so many limitations. We have an overloaded…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Nobody forces you to torture people.
Saeb Erekat: We have an overloaded working of complexities. I am personally dealing with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Mehdi Hasan: You mention Amnesty. Sanjeev Bery, who works for Amnesty International in the United States, he says, “When Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories engage in peaceful protest, they can face brutal crackdowns from Palestinian security forces. It is time for the US to stop looking the other way while Palestinian protesters are beaten and shot.”
Saeb Erekat: I think beating demonstrators is a mistake, yes.
Mehdi Hasan: It’s more than a mistake.
Saeb Erekat: I’m admitting it.
Mehdi Hasan: When you torture people it’s more than a mistake.
Saeb Erekat: I’m admitting it. It’s shameful.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well on the issue of shamefulness, when I was in Ramallah, I drove past a building which I was told was the Palestinian presidential palace, it cost several million dollars, it was grossly, obscenely big. I’m wondering why does the president of an occupied people need to live in a palace?
Saeb Erekat: It’s not built for him, it’s for our guests. [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: Which guests?
Saeb Erekat: We have foreign dignitaries that come to visit Palestine…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] So you think it’s justified spending several million dollars on a presidential palace?
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] No, no, look, look, Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas lives in an apartment in Ramallah. I, Saeb Erekat, live in the home I was born in in Jericho. Alright? And what you call the presidential palace is a guesthouse. We have parliamentarians from all over earth; we have NGOs coming to visit us and so on. So where are you going to keep putting them, in the Movenpick at $300 a night? We can’t afford it. That’s why we built this guesthouse, and please come and visit it, and if you come I will have you stay there.
Mehdi Hasan: We did… [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]
Saeb Erekat: I promise.
Mehdi Hasan: I did come to Ramallah, and when the Al Jazeera camera crew went to film the palace, they were threatened with arrest. [LAUGHTER/APPLAUSE]
Mehdi Hasan: We talked about in Part one the Palestine Papers, which you urged everyone to go and look at online on the Al Jazeera website …
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] These papers, they are on the website of Al Jazeera – read them!
Mehdi Hasan: An advert from the guest tonight! Well, one of the documents on there is a conversation between you and David Hale, the US Middle East envoy – deputy envoy. In September 2009 you’re quoted as saying, “We have had to kill Palestinians to establish one authority, one gun and the rule of law. We continue to perform our obligations. We have invested time and effort and killed our own people to maintain order and the rule of law.”
Saeb Erekat: That’s true. That’s true. There were Palestinians who were killed in clashes because we said if we want to build a nation state, we must have one authority, one gun and the rule of law. In the UK, if a group of people will claim that they want to do something and take it to arms, what happens? What happens in any country on earth? Look. The worst thing that can happen to any society is multiple authorities. Ask the United States 100 years after independence, when there were multiple authorities, there were half a million Americans who were killed. Ask Algeria two decades ago. Ask Afghanistan what is going on now when people take to arms. Ask India. When nation states get the disease of multiple authorities, you have disasters and we will not tolerate this.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Some, you say that’s the worst thing that could happen. Some Palestinians say the worst thing that could happen is that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO were set up to stand up to the Israelis and protect the Palestinians, but instead what we’ve seen is protecting the Israelis and standing up to the Palestinians. Sharif Nashashibi, you’re a Palestinian journalist based in the UK. What do you think of the Palestinian Authority’s security record, human rights record and the rest?
Sharif Nashashibi: I joined, several years ago, I joined a UN programme that sends expatriate Palestinians to Palestine to help build institutions there, and they placed me in the Palestinian Authority as a media consultant and I experienced first-hand corruption, nepotism and ineptitude. And I went to Palestine really wanting to make a difference to my country, and I left completely despondent that the PA had the ability or even the willingness to make a real difference on the ground, and I spoke to many other UN employees, Palestinians, who were in the same programme, who were in the Palestinian Authority, who felt exactly the same way.
Saeb Erekat: Sharif, it’s your country. I mean, you’re there, as much as I have a duty to do for my country and to get it back, you have a country to do it. So you have no excuse to leave. It’s you and me and Manuel and every single Palestinian who believes in bringing Palestine back to the map, we should stay the course and stand shoulder to shoulder.
Sharif Nashashibi: [INTERRUPTING] But I fight, I fight for Palestine from here because I’m not sidelined here. I was side-lined in my own country.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] But please. But please, Sharif.
Mehdi Hasan: Let me bring in Ambassador Hassasian who’s here. You’re an envoy for your people abroad.
Manuel Hassasian: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: Do you find it difficult to make the case for your people in London, or Washington, or Paris, with all these allegations of human rights abuses and corruption being thrown at you and at the Palestinian Authority?
Manuel Hassasian: First of all, I represent the entire Palestinian people, so when I speak about Palestine, I speak about every single Palestinian. So from that perspective, let me tell you something. First of all, we are still in the middle of a national liberation movement. The objective conditions that we are living in under occupation. I think your question should be directed towards the human rights abuse and violations of an occupier for almost 5 million Palestinians. There’s where we have to concert our efforts in fighting our battles.
Mehdi Hasan: With respect, when we have Israeli guests on the show, we put those abuses to them. Now we have a Palestinian guest on the show, I’m putting them to you.
Manuel Hassasian: Yes, we beg to differ sometimes amongst ourselves, but this is the beauty of pluralism and democracy. Now, nobody says every government is perfect, every country is perfect. There are human rights abuses in the United States, in the UK, in Europe. So we cannot just come and say that the PA is practicing human rights abuses against its people. That’s not true. It is looking at the glass as being half empty, and not as half full. We have achieved so much as Authority to the Palestinian people.
Mehdi Hasan: If you’ve been tortured, with respect, I’m not sure you would care about whether the glass is half empty or half full. Let me bring in Professor Rosemary Hollis who is an academic at City University here in London, one of Britain’s leading experts on the Middle East and this conflict. Rosemary, same question to you – how much damage do you think these allegations of human rights abuses and corruption have done to the Palestinian cause in the international arena?
Rosemary Hollis: Not a lot, actually. I think the days when they did the Palestinians the most damage was in the 1990s, when the Palestinians were constantly expected to change and be better in order to meet Israeli requirements for a partner in the negotiating process.
Saeb Erekat: First of all, I’m not going to justify a single Palestinian being tortured. That’s wrong, that should stop, and I can assure you that the president of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas is personally involved in every single case. I’m not saying that we, that it’s stopped. But I don’t think any of us should justify these things. And I don’t think any Palestinian should justify any form of corruption, I don’t think so. Mistakes are being committed, and we, Sharif, myself, and all those Palestinians all over the nation must stand shoulder to shoulder in order to make sure that the right people are in office in Palestine, and we will make it.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, well on that note, let’s bring in our very patient audience here in the Oxford Union. We’ve been talking about the peace process, negotiations, the United States, one state versus two states, human rights abuses, lots of subjects. Stick your hands up in the air. Let’s go to lady here in the front to begin with.
Audience Participant 1: Is there any good news in Kerry’s evident determination and do you carry any faith in a framework agreement that could be established to provide meaningful parameters for negotiations on a final deal?
Saeb Erekat: To be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m doing my best. I did my best with John Kerry. I submitted everything, I did everything humanly possible to make him succeed. We offered so many things. Up ‘til today, John Kerry did not present any official position to us, so I don’t know whether he wants to do framework for negotiations, or a framework agreement for a permanent status. These are two different things, by the way.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay.
Saeb Erekat: If he goes to Abbas a framework for negotiations, that means he may be introducing new terms of reference for the negotiations, which is something that's going to be bad. If he wants to introduce framework agreement on permanent status issues with no end-term solutions, nothing else, we will study it. But he needs to put it on the table. He hasn’t done it yet.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, gentleman here in the maroon shirt.
Audience Participant 2: You mentioned that one of the things we need is democracy in the Arab world. So do you think that we have democracy in Palestine?
Mehdi Hasan: Are you Palestinian yourself?
Audience Participant 2: Yes.
Mehdi Hasan: And do you believe there is a democratic system in place?
Audience Participant 2: No.
Saeb Erekat: Look, Hamas is a Palestinian political party. They won the elections. I remember the day that Mr Haniyeh came to submit his government for the Legislative Council. I had won the seat in Jericho and the Jordan Valley for Fatah, and I was nominated to give the speech in the loyal opposition. I told him, “Mr Haniyeh, today you are not the prime minister of Hamas, you are my prime minister. You are the prime minister of the Palestinian people. When Imam Khomeini came to office in Iran he changed the name of his country, but he committed to all Iran’s obligations. So did Nelson Mandela, so does everybody. Please separate between your role as Hamas and as prime minister for Palestinians.” Now we’re asking them for reconciliation. What do we want to do? We want to have elections. Number one: elections is for the Palestine National Council. Wherever Palestinians can vote, they should vote. Eleven million. And that’s the key to reconciliation. That’s the Doha Agreement.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Do you think there will be reconciliation with Hamas?
Saeb Erekat: I’m sure there will.
Mehdi Hasan: Even though they don’t support your current negotiations.
Saeb Erekat: They don’t have to. They don’t have to. I sit with Mashaal, and by the way he’s an honest, decent man. I report to him, I report to all my leaders in Palestine. This is my obligation, they need to disagree with me, criticise me and so on, but yes, we need to have elections…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] But only a few years ago you were all killing each other.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Look, when we differ, Mehdi, we should resort to ballots and not bullets. Hamas made the strategic mistake of resorting to bullets.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s take a question there from the gentleman there with the hand up, yep.
Audience Participant 3: Could you explain to us how the continued arrest and detention and harassment of Hamas members in the West Bank advances the cause of national reconciliation?
Saeb Erekat: Look, we have a problem; we have a serious problem with this split. And people are not arrested because they are Hamas. Palestinians are being arrested in the West Bank simply because they either smuggle guns, or launder money, or so on, but we don’t go and arrest Hamas because they are Hamas. As a matter of fact, we want to have reconciliation with Hamas. Hamas is a Palestinian party like Fatah, and Fatah and Hamas were established to put Palestine back to the map. Palestine and Jerusalem is much more important than Fatah and Hamas. That is the truth. And we need Hamas.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s go, gentleman here in the white shirt, second row.
Audience Participant 4: Thank you. Dr Erekat, I think you’re right to give negotiations and the two-state solution a last chance with Kerry – the alternatives to that are worse. My question to you is the criticism is that the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. If this is the last opportunity, can you come forward this time for a proposal, how can you ensure that – if this is the last chance for the two-state solution – that we get it in this process?
Saeb Erekat: We are exerting every possible effort in order to ensure Kerry’s success. We want him to succeed. We want the two-state solution. But if the Israeli government and Mr Netanyahu insist on dictation, on fait accompli policies, on settlements and so on, he’s destroying the two-state solution. And you know what, I’m not a racist.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay.
Saeb Erekat: I’m not against Jews, I’m not against Christians, Muslims being equal votes, one state, but once I say this, you know, many Israelis get angry. They think we don’t want a two-state solution. So if I offer you recognition, and I’m yet to hear a single Israeli official from this government to tell me that they recognise the state of Palestine’s right to exist in peace and security on ’67. I’m waiting to hear an Israeli official say East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] Okay, the gentleman here.
Saeb Erekat: I’m waiting for an Israeli to stand up and apologise for refugees.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s take another question from the audience. Gentleman in the front row, wait for the mic to come to you, in the jumper.
Audience Participant 5: Dr Erekat, we Palestinians are justice and peace-seekers. And despite the fact the Palestinian leadership, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, has been very flexible, and agreed to resume the talks with Israelis in spite of continuing settlement expansion policy, but recently Israeli officials say we have no peace partner. Is that because the Palestinian leadership refused to concede the Palestinian national rights?
Saeb Erekat: If Mother Teresa were to become the President of Palestinians, Montesquieu to become the Speaker of the Palestinian parliament, and Thomas Jefferson to become the Prime Minister of Palestine, the three of them, imagine, in one Cabinet, and they were to say, “A Palestinian state on ’67, East Jerusalem as its capital, right of refugees in accordance with 194,” Israel officials will say, “These are non-partners, we don’t have a partner, they are a letter to Bin Laden,” so that’s the truth. [LAUGHTER]
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, on that note, let’s take some more questions. Gentleman with the beard and the glasses on the third row.
Audience Participant 6: Dr Erekat, I’m looking at that through Israeli eyes, and I ask myself, ‘”Why should we stop?” We can continue pushing you, we can continue building settlements, you won’t do anything, we can retain the army in the Jordan Valley, you won’t do anything. Will the PLO continue choosing survival over strategy, or are we going to see something we haven’t seen before on April 29th? Thank you.
Saeb Erekat: The PLO stands for bringing Palestine back to the map, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Today you tell me, what did I gain? Today, 165 nations in the last resolutions of the UN voted for me. Now we have the power to make accession to 63 organisations, and, once again, we have every single right to defend…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] While you’re signing signatures, settlement growth continues, as you, yourself, say.
Saeb Erekat: [INTERRUPTING] Fine, but these, these are war crimes.
Mehdi Hasan: But you’re not stopping them.
Saeb Erekat: They will stop. And we will stop them.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s take another. I want a lady from the audience please. Lady in the third row.
Audience Participant 7: I’m a Palestinian myself and I want to ask you a very personal question. As a Palestinian who experienced the Israeli soldiers occupying my house, I lost a friend and my house has been affected seriously now by the wall. I can understand how hard it is for you as a Palestinian negotiator, and your position must be very hard. But my question: Are you able to negotiate without allowing your feelings and emotions to impact your judgement in taking decisions?
Saeb Erekat: You touch my heart, you know. Look, everything I do doesn’t paramount to one night some of my colleagues spent in Israeli jails. There are some classmates of mine who have been in jail for 26 years. There have been some classmates of mine who their parents took to the cemeteries. I negotiate in pain and frustration, in tears sometimes, but I really believe that negotiating in pain and frustration for five years is cheaper than exchanging bullets for five minutes. We are a people of peace. We are bringing Palestine back to the map, and Palestine will harm no one. Palestine has stood historically as a bridge between civilisations, between religions, and there is no meaning for a Palestine to come back on the map without it being democracy, human rights…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You believe that will happen in your lifetime?
Saeb Erekat: …accountability, and transparency, the rule of law, and women’s rights. And that’s my promise to you…
Mehdi Hasan: [INTERRUPTING] You believe a free Palestinian state in your lifetime?
Saeb Erekat: You look like one of my daughters, all right? And that’s my promise to you and to my grandchildren, that Palestine will be a country of accountability, transparency, women’s rights, human rights, and I will believe this will happen in my lifetime. This will happen.
Mehdi Hasan: Let’s go to the back. Gentleman right at the back, with the green shirt and the glasses on.
Audience Participant 8: Despite the challenges and obstacles faced, that somehow a two-state solution can come to fruition, are you confident that the ordinary Palestinian would agree with such an agreement?
Saeb Erekat: Once an agreement is reached with Israel, sir, we’re going to put this agreement, as President Mahmoud Abbas said, to a national public referendum for Palestinians, anywhere they live, and anywhere they can vote, and that’s the truth. We’re going to put this agreement to a national public referendum, where all Palestinians can say yes or no.
Mehdi Hasan: And who’s going to vote in that referendum?
Saeb Erekat: Any country that would allow us. We are, we are scattered in the five continents now.
Mehdi Hasan: So all Palestinians will vote on a peace deal?
Saeb Erekat: All Palestinians have the right to vote for this peace deal, and as I told you, me living in Jericho or you living in Jerusalem or somebody living in Gaza or in Scandinavia makes you no different.
Mehdi Hasan: Okay, let’s try and get a couple more questions. Gentleman here with the jacket on, just wait for the microphone to come to you.
Audience Participant 9: Had a figure like Nelson Mandela been head of the PLO, do you think by now the occupation would have ended, and Palestinians and Israelis might have reached peace?
Saeb Erekat: As I told you, if, if Mother Teresa were to be running Palestinians, and as long as the Israelis feel this sense of immunity, as long as your countries in the West and the Western values continue to treat Israel as a country above the laws of man, why I don’t know, but that’s your values, I don’t know.
Mehdi Hasan: Look, Mother Teresa didn’t run the Palestinian Authority, Nelson Mandela didn’t run the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat did…
Saeb Erekat: Yes, yes.
Mehdi Hasan: …He made a lot of mistakes – something we haven’t had time to talk about tonight – he made a lot of mistakes, did he not?
Saeb Erekat: Look, Yasser Arafat is the father of the Palestinian national movement. Yasser Arafat is the man who brought Palestinians back from refugees to a people with national rights. Yasser Arafat is the courageous leader who recognised the two-state solution. Yasser Arafat is the one who put us strongly on international law, as the basis for a solution.
Mehdi Hasan: But he died a failure.
Saeb Erekat: Look, Yasser Arafat was killed because he stood fast for Jerusalem, for refugees, for our rights. And I’ll tell you a joke to end.
Mehdi Hasan: Please do.
Saeb Erekat: A Palestinian and an Israeli go a Western movie. Cowboy. And the star is running, so the Israeli, as usual, looks at the Palestinian and tells him, “In 60 seconds, he will fall from the back of his horse, $20.” And the Palestinian, immediately provoked, “Yes, you’re on.” So in 59 seconds, the star fell from the horse. So the Palestinian carries the $20 and gives it to the Israeli, and the Israeli’s conscience is feeling guilty, “No, no I can’t take it.” “Why?” So the Israeli says, “I don’t want to cheat you. I’ve seen this movie before.” So the Palestinian looks at him and says, “I also saw it before, but I thought he would learn from his mistakes.” And the minute we will learn from our mistakes, we are bringing Palestine back to the map. And that we will.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, just before we finish, on that very subject of mistakes, let me ask you one very final question: What is your biggest personal regret?
Saeb Erekat: There are many, many, many personal mistakes I made.
Mehdi Hasan: Name one.
Saeb Erekat: I made - I did not prepare Yasser Arafat for the Camp David. We prepared him for everything except that when they came and said, underneath Haram al-Sharif there is Temple Mount, I decided to ignore this point, I didn’t think they would bring it, and this turned out to be one of my biggest mistakes. This is one of them. I can’t, I’m going to have three volumes of mistakes one day published.
Mehdi Hasan: And you do believe that in your lifetime there will be an independent Palestinian state?
Saeb Erekat: Absolutely. This is a fact. Palestine is coming back to the map.
Mehdi Hasan: Well, on that note, we’re going to leave it there. Thank you very much, Saeb Erekat, for joining us tonight. Next week I’ll be asking very similar questions to one of Dr Erekat’s former Israeli negotiating partners, the ex-Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, so join us for Head to Head next week on Al Jazeera. Goodnight.