Negotiator Redux

11.15.13

The Erekat Came Back

John Kerry’s quest to bring peace to the Middle East was dealt a severe blow this week when Mahmoud Abbas confirmed that Saeb Erekat, Palestine’s chief negotiator, had resigned and was taking the team with him. Abbas didn’t panic because Saeb Erekat can’t quit quitting. His nickname is, "The Erekat that Came Back," and Abu Mazen had no doubt in his mind that Saeb’s most recent resignation would be shorter lived than Rami Hamdallah’s dabbling was. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was already having the worst week ever and the last thing he needed was to have Team Palestine bail on negotiations.

Last week, Kerry headed back to the Holy Land for the latest episode of “Let’s Make a Peace Deal!” His previous pleas that all parties involved keep their yaps shut, because what happens behind closed doors at the peace talks stays behind doors, had fallen on deaf ears and loud mouths. Israeli Knesset member Zahava Gal-On claimed a little birdie told her that the United States of America had a peace plan of their own up their sleeve, which they were going to force upon the sparring parties if they didn’t reach a settlement by New Year’s Day. Kerry swore no such document existed, but I have seen a copy of these proposed plans. The American solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will allow Palestinians to keep their health insurance plan if they like it while allowing Israel to keep everything else. If you all don’t know I’m kidding by now, I cannot help you.

A hot mess awaited John Kerry in Jerusalem. Israel had kept up its end of the bargain and released a paltry 26 more of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners it promised to release 14 years ago. Instead of freeing all of these heavy hitters at once, Israel insists on doing it in phases so that every few months the world can be reminded that she is making a huge sacrifice by releasing these convicted criminals and therefore should be allowed to build another 5,000 illegal settlements.

Demolition orders for Palestinian homes all over East Jerusalem were also issued to make room for the new settlement units and create more backlash against the peace farce. Clashes continued at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Knesset turned into an episode of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” when the ministers got into a screaming match over one Israeli MK’s insistence the Al Aqsa compound be called the Temple Mount instead. My Hebrew is rusty so I had to depend on translations while watching the video, but here are some of the highlights. The Arab MKs accused the Israeli ones of being pyromaniacs and wanting to set off the Third Intifada. The Israeli MKs responded by calling their Arab counterparts savages and Arafat lovers. Minister Tibi (Arab) responded by telling his fellow MK that, “Arafat’s shoe is worth 10 of you," and the Knesset illustrated once again that minorities are separate and unequal in Israel.

Kerry’s trip to Bethlehem also did not go as planned. His appearance was more like a roast than a visit to the birthplace of Jesus. The always entertaining Vera Baboun, Bethlehem’s mayor, welcomed Kerry by reminding the Secretary of State that the settlements had a stranglehold on that little town of Bethlehem. “Dear Secretary Kerry, you are most welcome in Bethlehem, a city surrounded by 27 ever-expanding Israeli settlements, sealed off by an annexation wall built deep inside our district’s land,” Mayor Baboun taunted. Kerry, in an effort to lighten the mood, announced that the U.S. was providing an additional $75 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Vera showed her gratitude by reminding Kerry that money can't buy you freedom. "Please allow me to reiterate that no true economic development is possible as far as Israel continues its occupation of our country," she said. "As the World Bank confirmed a few weeks ago, we continue to lose billions of dollars because of the Israeli occupation,” so thanks, but no thanks.

Later in Bethlehem, at a meeting with Abbas, Kerry tried to redeem himself by publicly declaring that the settlements were illegitimate. The international community recognizes Israeli settlements as illegal, but Kerry chose to use the word illegitimate instead. I believe he did so to illustrate the fact that the settlements are Israel’s illegitimate children and they are ruining everyone’s lives.

The Israelis have not made the peace process easy for Kerry. Mere hours before he landed in Tel Aviv, the Israeli housing minister announced permits had been issued for thousands of new settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. When Palestinians flipped out, the Israelis claimed that the U.S. and the PLO negotiating team had agreed to the settlements expansion being linked to each prisoner release. Kerry had had enough. He threw Israel under the bus and pointed out that although Israel had made it clear that they would announce hundreds of new settlement units for each prisoner freed, Palestine and the U.S. never agreed to it. At his meeting with Abbas, Kerry reiterated his defense of Team Palestine when he stated, “I want to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree as a matter of going back to the talks that they somehow condone or accept the settlements.”

John Kerry was so fed up with Israel’s shenanigans that he did the unthinkable and pet the giant elephant in the room. In a joint interview with Israel Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, Kerry publicly questioned Israel's commitment to the two-state solution, which the Secretary of State had promised his boss would be brokered by spring. During the interview Kerry queried, “Let me ask you something—how if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace, and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say that you’re planning to build in a place that will eventually be Palestine? It sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.”

This was Kerry’s “aha” moment. It became clear to the former senator from Massachusetts that Israel has no intention to voluntarily give the Palestinians one olive branch, not to mention the whole tree, or the land it’s rooted in. Kerry now needed to go home to persuade President Obama to stop egging Israel on by using the U.S.’s almighty U.N. veto to protect the settlement enterprise. Israel responded to the Secretary of State's admonishments by basically spitting in the face of the two-state solution and announcing even more new settlements.

While Kerry and friends continue to feebly push for two states, Israel continues to build settlements at super-sonic speeds. The Palestinian negotiating team was so miffed by Israel’s insistence on yet again linking settlement expansion to the prisoner releases, Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, was rumored to have tendered his resignation, and on Wednesday Mahmoud Abbas confirmed that the rumors were true.

Saeb had indeed fallen off the wagon and quit. The negotiating team's resignation added to Kerry’s woes, but Abbas, like the honey badger, was unfazed. Abu Mazen made it clear that if Erekat didn’t come crawling back like he always does, Abbas would replace him and the rest of the negotiating team in a heartbeat. Unlike Erekat, Abbas is no quitter. He is committed to not being the first party to walk away from the table. Abu Mazen refuses to give up the fight to create two separate states between the dried up Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, regardless of how many new settlements, archaeological museums, and parks are green lit in East Jerusalem or any of the other land meant to house the future Palestine.

In honor of Saeb Erekat’s latest resignation Matthew Kalman put together a retrospective of the past two decades of Saeb’s “Greatest Quits.” My personal favorite is in February 2011 when Erekat quit after it was leaked in the Palestine Papers (our very own WikiLeaks) that he had promised Tzipi Livni all of Jerusalem and the kitchen sink. Let me know which one is your favorite quit.

*Author is not responsible if Saeb Erekat rescinds his resignation prior to this article’s publication.