Palestine’s “can’t deliver” chief negotiator promoted to secretary-general

Saab Erekat with Tipi Livni
By Stuart Littlewood

Watch this horror movie – if you can bear to. It stars Palestine’s top negotiator in action. And it’s not pretty.

I’ve seen/heard Saeb Erekat interviewed before. He gives the same cringe-making performance and quickly becomes hysterical. In 20 years he has learned nothing from the well honed skills of his Israeli and US counterparts.

Readers might not approve of Stephen Sackur’s line of questioning in the video, described by one viewer as a grim cat-and-mouse set-up by the BBC. But knowing our national broadcaster’s bias in favour of Israel it’s no great surprise. Some journalists are paid to savage their victims to boost viewing figures. Why else would it be called HARDtalk? Erekat has been interviewed by Sackur before so he knows what to expect: a rough ride and the need to prepare accordingly.

…after 20 years in the job he [Erekat] should be able to assemble “killer” facts, express them concisely and calmly, and steer the “interrogation” to suit the Palestinian agenda.

It’s clumsy journalism but Sackur, in his thirst for blood, provides many opportunities for Erekat to turn the tables and score – that is, if he’d been properly trained. Sadly, he has never been professional enough to get himself equipped. Nevertheless, after 20 years in the job he should be able to assemble “killer” facts, express them concisely and calmly, and steer the “interrogation” to suit the Palestinian agenda.

But despite (or maybe because of) his political science degree from San Francisco and doctorate in peace and conflict studies from Bradford, Erekat is a ranter. When the discussion gets heated he becomes erratic, confused, impatient and repetitious. He just loves to shout the other person down.

For two decades Erekat misread the Israelis and their intentions (which are an open book, after all). He and his team wasted precious time on worthless, lopsided negotiations with an unbending enemy whose policy has always been to defy international law and UN resolutions and carry on with their annexation and colonisation regardless, making the situation for Palestinians even more intolerable. Israeli negotiators rub their hands with glee whenever they see Erekat coming.

Even in this interview Erekat never utters the key word “justice”. He says plenty about peace and hope; but he must know, as we do, that there can be no peace without justice first. The Palestinians’ main weapons are truth, law and the many UN resolutions waiting to be implemented. Justice involves upholding international law and implementing those resolutions. From the start they should have pushed down the justice route and supported the effort with an effective communications programme to spread the truth and persuade the international community.

But “justice”, “law” and “truth” hardly, if ever, pass Erekat’s lips. Are they not in the Palestinian Authority’s wordbook?

It’s toe-curlingly obvious that Erekat isn’t cut out to play cat-and-mouse with the media and shouldn’t keep pushing himself forward.

Erekat is so deeply embedded in the Palestinian Authority/Palestine Liberation Organisation structure that he cannot easily be dislodged – just like his boss, Mahmoud Abbas, whose term ended in 2009 but whose backside is still superglued to the presidential throne, courtesy of Israel, the US and the UK.

It’s toe-curlingly obvious that Erekat isn’t cut out to play cat-and-mouse with the media and shouldn’t keep pushing himself forward. I happen to know that nearly 10 years ago the PA/PLO were offered, through their London embassy, media skills training by a firm that coaches government spokespeople, military chiefs, senior police officers, heads of research and top executives here in the West. They turned it down. I’ve heard from several sources since then that the PA is under strict instructions not to rock the boat, not to make waves. If you’ve had dealings with their lackadaisical London “embassy” you’ll know what I mean. Unresponsive is the name of their game. Proactive they are not. You seldom get to speak to someone who is briefed. It is much easier to ring the Israeli embassy for a story.

It’s a sobering thought that a stupid decision by the leadership a decade ago, denying themselves the essential tools to deal with Western media, counter Israel’s propaganda, manage the news and deliver it through a diligent communications network, may well have cost the delightful Palestinian people their country.

Some campaigners say they wept for him [Erekat]. My sympathy is for the people he is supposed to represent. They’ve been saddled with him for too long, and that misfortune isn’t over yet.

Erekat doesn’t come across any better in this interview with Mehdi Hasan, the presenter of AlJazeera English’s “Head to Head” programme. He may once have been riding high as the poster-boy for Palestinian diplomacy. But disclosures in the notorious Palestine Papers, secret documents from the peace process leaked by AlJazeera in 2011, shattered his credibility.

These days Erekat does the Palestinian cause no favours at all, which cynics will say is why he’s there. Despite threats to resign he never actually goes. By the end of the HARDtalk interview he cuts a sad figure, wallowing in self-pity. Sackur says: “I have never heard you this bleak, this negative, this despairing. Is it all over for you?” To which Erekat replies: “I was unable to deliver… not because I failed but because I was foiled.”

Some campaigners say they wept for him. My sympathy is for the people he is supposed to represent. They’ve been saddled with him for too long, and that misfortune isn’t over yet.

Instead of doing the decent thing and stepping down Erekat continues to cling to the negotiator job and, on top of that, was recently rewarded with promotion to secretary-general of the PLO. There is speculation that he’s being prepped to take over as president from Abbas, although he told Mehdi Hasan he wished to go back to being a university professor. Well go, dammit, go!

Fat chance of that, however. He and Abbas are Israel’s most valuable assets in Ramallah and will no doubt feel it their duty to bluff it out until the occupation is irreversible and “Greater Israel” is in the bag.

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