Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 July 2019

Saeb Erekat claims Manama sets the wrong course for peace progress

Negotiator calls for last-minute change of heart in US stance

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat speaking at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan on 7 April 2019. World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat speaking at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan on 7 April 2019. World Economic Forum / Jakob Polacsek

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has said the US-backed economic conference due to take place in Bahrain next week puts the very basis of four decades of peace building in doubt.

Mr Erekat has led the opposition to the Manama economic pledging conference on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) where he is secretary general.

The veteran figure was on a tour of Britain on Wednesday and spoke to a central London think tank. The Bahrain meeting is being organised by the same team of White House advisors that has conceived the so-called "deal of the century", a much delayed plan to reinvigorate the peace process.

Mr Erekat called for a last minute cancellation of the meeting, which is expected to garner pledges of as much as $68 billion over a decade for the Palestinian economy. He told the London audience that the US should think again. "We need to change course, and this will not happen at the Manama conference," he said. "The land for peace principle cannot be replaced by money for peace. Prosperity cannot be achieved without a political solution."

Reflecting on the trajectory from the inclusive Oslo peace process to the current impasse, Mr Erekat said that Palestinians had secured guarantees of international recognition in return for peace with Israel but these were never made good.

The failure of Britain, which had with the Balfour Declaration, kick started the loss of the Palestinian lands, to make reparation through recognition was, he said, a continuing injustice. "Why this is not happening given the UK commitment to the two-state solution?" he asked.

Commenting on the ideological shift in the US administration, Mr Erekat remarked on the irony that the Palestinians had enjoyed decades of good relations with the US only to see this upended when President Donald Trump came to power. By appointing Jared Kushner as his pointman on the process, Mr Trump had given ground to a new outlook on the US side. "They believe that it's God's will [ that Jerusalem serves as Israel's capital] and that the Palestinians are not a people," he said.

That was a misreading of the historical imperative and Mr Erekat said he remained hopeful the Israeli leadership would return to the negotiating table on the basis of the two-state resolution of the issues. A deal could happen more quickly that is generally perceived. "We can do it and faster than what people think," he said.

In an article this week, Jason Greenblatt, a member of the Kushner team, singled out Mr Erekat for not backing the conference. "Despite our repeated statements to the contrary, Saeb claims we are trying to buy the Palestinians. We know that won't work. We fully recognize that our economic plan cannot be successful without a political agreement, just as a political agreement would have little chance without an effective economic plan. The elements of the conflict must be dealt with to unlock the incredible potential of the Palestinian and regional economy," he said.

The pledges expected in Manama are large relative to the annual Palestinian Authority budget of under $2 billion dollars.

Mr Kushner himself has said financial measures cannot compensate for the political vacuum. “Economic progress can only be achieved with a solid economic vision and if the core political issues are resolved,” he said.

Meanwhile Azzam Shawwa, the PA finance chief, has revealed its debts have risen to $3 billion after the US stopped hundreds of millions in annual stipends.

“What’s next, we don’t know," he said. "How we are going to pay salaries next month? How are we going to finance our obligations? How will daily life continue without liquidity in the hands of people?

“I don’t know where we are heading. This uncertainty makes it difficult to plan for tomorrow."

The steep cuts in US aid over the past year were regarded as an attempt to push the authority back to the negotiating table after it cut off political dealings with the Trump administration in 2017.

Updated: June 19, 2019 07:00 PM

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