x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Erekat back after embarrassment of Al Jazeera revelations

Though he apparently resigned after leaked documents portrayed him in a less-than-flattering light, offering deep concessions to Israel and gaining nothing in return, PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat is back.

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, is carried during a rally upon his return from Cairo to Jericho in January this year. Mr Erekat initially accused Al Jazeera of misrepresenting quotes and making up others in its coverage of
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, is carried during a rally upon his return from Cairo to Jericho in January this year. Mr Erekat initially accused Al Jazeera of misrepresenting quotes and making up others in its coverage of "The Palestine Papers", its name for what it says are leaked documents showing the Palestinians giving way on major issues in talks with Israel. Ammar Awad / Reuters

JERUSALEM // Saeb Erekat is back. Only a few months ago, the veteran Palestinian negotiator and, thanks to satellite television, a worldwide face of the Palestinian struggle, resigned in embarrassment after documents leaked to Al Jazeera by an apparently disgruntled employee in his office portrayed him in a less-than-flattering light.

The meeting notes and memoranda of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's negotiation affairs department, which he headed, show Mr Erekat as sometimes overly eager to ingratiate himself with US and Israeli officials and offering concessions sharply at odds with the Palestinian leadership's public positions.

The damage to Mr Erekat's reputation and credibility from the revelations were thought by many Palestinians to be irreparable, and he retreated to his home in Jericho. Now, however, in a confounding twist, he says he never really left.

"It was announced that I resigned from my office, the negotiations affairs department, and that I'm still the chief negotiator," he explained in a telephone interview earlier this week. "It was announced and it was known that I am the chief negotiator and that I do the negotiations," he said.

That is a skilled parsing of last February's events: the statement by spokesman Yaser Abed Rabbo in February announcing Mr Erekat's resignation makes no mention of retaining his post as chief negotiator. Whatever the case, there should be no doubts about the re-emergence of the 56-year-old Mr Erekat.

There he was in Washington earlier this month, courting the media with his well-honed quips and turns-of-phrase as he insisted that, yes, the Palestinians would forge ahead with their plan to seek statehood recognition at the United Nations in September, despite opposition from the United States and Israel.

As Mr Erekat forges ahead in his inimitable style, barely missing a beat from the controversy that threatened to engulf him, in his wake is only a mist of confusion.

"I met him a few days ago," said Hani Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, who said Mr Erekat explained to him the same story about the resignation. "What's the difference? I don't know."

For a great many more, watching Mr Erekat's abrupt return to high-profile public official embodies the wide disconnect between Palestinians and a leadership that has long been dominated by "old guard" figures.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a research organisation in Washington, said: "What is bothering people is not Abu Mazen being Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] or Erekat being Erekat. It's the fact that there aren't negotiations. It's the fact that the strategy isn't working, and that no one has a viable alternative."

Ordinary Palestinians, he added, are more "concerned about their daily lives under [Israel's] occupation and how they're going to get out of it".

That apparent disconnect was at the core of the Al Jazeera controversy embroiling him earlier this year.

The roughly 1,600 documents leaked from his office purported to show Mr Erekat and fellow negotiators offering deep concessions to Israel on a number of hot-button issues, which went beyond what many Palestinians were willing to give.

In one exchange that drew criticism, Mr Erekat is portrayed as grovelling on the subject of dividing Jerusalem during a meeting in May 2008 with the then Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. "It is no secret that … we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim [Hebrew for Jerusalem] in history," one memorandum quotes him as saying. Israel ultimately rejected the offer.

In another exchange, this one with the former US envoy to the region, George Mitchell, Mr Erekat declares the "deal is there" on a plan that over a decade would allow some 10,000 Palestinian refugees to return to their land in what is now Israel but deny the right of return to millions of others.

Mr Erekat, initially defiant, branded Al Jazeera's sensational reporting on the documents a "pack of lies" and accused the Doha-based network of endangering his life.

But after promising to step down if it was determined the leaked documents were genuine, he admitted that some of the documents indeed may have been authentic, and resigned. The PLO's negotiations team was reportedly overhauled and its mainly foreign staff were dismissed.

Assem Khalil, the director of Birzeit University's Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies, said Mr Erekat's handling of the issue has raised serious questions about his leadership and return.

“Instead of using this to show how the Palestinians had gone so far to make negotiations succeed, and yet were still rebuffed by the Israelis,” he said, “Erekat lost his temper and acted like a child who was somehow attacked.”

Analysts say his longevity as an influential politician has long hinged on an ability to cultivate loyalty from superiors, despite lacking a popular base of support and failing in nearly two decades of peace talks with Israel to strike a negotiated end to the conflict.

Sameh Shabib, a columnist at the Ramallah-based Al Ayyam daily, said Mr Erekat owes his political ascent to Yasser Arafat. It was on the late Palestinian president’s coattails that Mr Erekat, a native of East Jerusalem but educated in America and Britain, rode to power and developed his formidable negotiating skills.

“After every meeting with the Israelis, he would go straight to Arafat and ask him, ‘What should I do?’” Mr Shabib recalled.

In return for his intimate access to power, Mr Erekat gave Arafat his unflagging loyalty. He has shown the same loyalty to Mr Abbas, Arafat’s successor, with all the pluses and minuses that entails.

“He’s not popular, but he’s loyal and considered a good negotiator, a very good negotiator.”

hnaylor@thenational.ae