- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2019

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

JERICHO, West Bank — The Palestinians’ outspoken resistance to U.S. mediation in the Middle East peace process is justified because President Trump broke a promise two years ago to avoid any moves before announcing his blueprint that unfairly favored Israel, according to longtime chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Administration officials dispute the claim, but the Palestinian diplomat in an interview insisted that Mr. Trump told him explicitly in a private meeting that the administration would “not take any unilateral actions that may preempt or prejudge issues between [us] and the Israelis.”

Speaking at the Palestinian negotiating office in Jericho, Mr. Erekat said the president made the pledge in May 2017 over lunch at the White House.

“He promised and said, ‘I’ll give these negotiations 12 months,’” Mr. Erekat said.



“Why did you break the promise?” Mr. Erekat asked rhetorically, asserting that Mr. Trump undermined the prospect for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks last year by abruptly moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the contested city as Israel’s capital.

He also decried the administration’s decisions to end decades of funding for the U.N. relief organization for Palestinian refugees and to close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington.

Mr. Erekat let out a dispirited moan when asked whether he is even remotely optimistic about the anticipated U.S. peace plan being formulated by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, along with Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.

He then launched into a story of how he asked the administration during Mr. Trump’s first year to “set me up with the Israelis” but that his hope for an honest broker in Washington dissolved when it became clear he was being ignored.

Mr. Erekat, 63, best known for his role as chief Palestinian negotiator in the breakthrough 1993 Oslo Accords, said tension with the White House spiked with the decision announced in late 2017 to relocate the U.S. Embassy. Previous administrations had come in promising to take the step but held back for fear of its impact of the negotiations and on the lack of support from allies.

Mr. Erekat said he warned Trump administration officials, including Mr. Kushner, repeatedly that the embassy move would spark a sharp Palestinian reaction.

“I looked Jared in the face and I told him, ‘If you do this, you will have disqualified yourself from any role in the peace process. Mark my words. And this may be the last meeting you would ever have with any Palestinian official,’” Mr. Erekat recounted.

He said the exchange occurred during a visit to Washington in November 2017 during which Mr. Kushner “started shouting at me, telling me that I don’t understand what’s going on in the region and the things around me.”

“I told him, ‘Well then, the best seat for me is to be a student. Teach me,’” said Mr. Erekat, who recounted that Mr. Kushner responded, “Don’t be sarcastic.”

“So I said to him, ‘Don’t make me sarcastic,’” Mr. Erekat said he replied.

“I said to him, ‘Do you know the real threat on Arabs? Arabs. Do you know the real threat on Israel? Israel. Do you know the real threat on Iran? Iran,” said Mr. Erekat. “He was shouting, and I responded by telling him things that he did not like, further and further.”

Despite U.S. wealth, military might and diplomatic clout in the region, Mr. Erekat said, he told Mr. Kushner, “This will be the last meeting with any Palestinian officials. Mark my words.’”

Mr. Kushner flatly disputes the exchange ever happened. “This conversation did not occur, obviously,” a senior White House official in Mr. Kushner’s office told The Washington Times. “It is completely untrue.”

Mr. Erekat stands by his account. Not only did it occur, he said, but it also soon fit a pattern of condescension that was followed by the shuttering of the Washington PLO office because, in the U.S. government’s words, the PLO “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

“To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a U.S. peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the U.S. government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise,” the administration said in a statement at the time.

Again, Mr. Erekat said, the facts show otherwise.

“Look, in 2017, we held 37 meetings with President Trump and his team,” he said. “In every single meeting, I asked Jared — or should I say Mr. Kushner — and Mr. Greenblatt to set me up with the Israelis in direct, bilateral negotiation.” In the end, he argued at the time, “It’s getting Palestinians and Israelis together to deliver the decisions required to make peace. It’s not you. It’s not Europeans. It’s not the Chinese.”

U.S. officials argued that all the past approaches had failed and it was time to try “something new,” Mr. Erekat recounted.

“But the point is that they said I refused to engage with the Israelis. Well, in every single meeting, I requested them to set me up with the Israelis, unconditionally, and they refused,” Mr. Erekat said.

He warned that the Trump White House has undermined the peace process by making Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “believe [Washington] can deliver me by pressuring me, twisting my arms, by starving me, by closing my schools, by closing my hospitals.”

“The end result here is people like me are really not relevant in Palestine anymore and the peace camp also no longer exists in Israel,” he said. That, he added, increases the odds of a security meltdown “because the vacuum between Palestinians and Israelis is filled with blood.”

Washington’s moves, Mr. Erekat said, have only accelerated a growing hard-liner shift in Israeli politics against recognizing Palestinians as worthy of rights or fair negotiations.

“We’re headed toward a deeper apartheid system than the one that existed in South Africa,” he said. “There is no right and no left [in Israel], there is a competition between who will implement apartheid in a way that the world will accept, which is so dumb and so shortsighted.”

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