Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warns two-state solution at risk

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

A senior Palestinian official warned on Sunday that the Israeli prime minister’s campaign pledge to annex West Bank settlements will be the death knell of the Palestinian Authority, while Oslo Accords veterans said such a rightward shift may make a two-state solution an unlikely possibility.

Speaking during a session at the World Economic Forum Mena at the Dead Sea in Jordan, Palestinian Liberation Organisation secretary general and negotiator Saeb Erekat said that if the Israeli government moves to annex West Bank territory, as promised by Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli TV on Saturday, the Palestinian Authority would cease to exist as an entity.

“We have reached a point that to me as the Palestinian Authority, now I am not sustainable,” Mr Erekat said in a panel. “That is the number one warming I am giving to everyone: The Palestinian Authority may have to play a disappearing act; it cannot be sustained.”

Mr Erekat said that the annexation of settlements in Area C, combined with recent funding cuts to the Palestinian Authority and the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has left the Authority without funds or the authority to act as a governing entity. Area C is an Israeli-occupied area that comprises 60 per cent of the West Bank with more than 300,000 settlers that was originally designated to gradually be transferred to Palestinian control under the Oslo Accords.

“The politics of Netanyahu, particularly the annexation of settlement blocs in the West Bank, will lead to the destruction of the Palestinian Authority,” Mr Erekat told The National. “In its place will be a Palestinian state in Gaza under the flag of Hamas. This seems to be what Netanyahu and Trump want.”

The outcome of Tuesday’s elections in Israel weighed heavily on experts and former negotiators discussing the future of the peace process. Many say the outcome of the election will determine the status quo in Israel and Palestine, the success of the Trump administration’s plans for the region, and support in some corners for a binational state.

Former Israeli brigadier general and negotiator Michel Herzog said he and many other retired officers are concerned that should Netanyahu align with far-right parties, Israeli government policy may lead to a de-facto binational situation where Israel retains the economic, social, and political responsibility of the Palestinians.

Such a scenario would be an existential threat to Israel’s identity as a “democratic state and a Jewish state,” he said.

“If Netanyahu wins the election and forms a coalition that relies on the far-right, there will be pressure to annex parts of settlements in Area C in the West Bank,” Mr Herzog told The National. “That presents a trajectory that can lead to a creeping Israeli annexation of the West Bank and this is very troubling.

“Netanyahu has long resisted annexing parts of the West Bank because I think intellectually he understands the ramifications of such a decision, but I am not reassured he will withstand the political pressures to do so.”

The two-state solution remains the most viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Terje Roed-Larson, a veteran of the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine. This is in spite of the rightward shift in Israeli politics, the lack of a strong actor on the Palestinian side, and the confusion surrounding the Trump administration’s peace plan.

“The reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza would be a disaster for the Palestinians and maybe an equal disaster for the Israelis,” said Mr Roed-Larson, who is a former Norwegian foreign minister.

When it comes to the US role in the peace process and the Trump administration’s determination to tear up nearly three decades of diplomacy, many observers remain sceptical of whether a peace agreement could be imposed on the Palestinians.

Following over 35 meetings with Trump administration officials, Mr Erekat said the White House’s policy of dictating terms, rather than facilitating discussions directly between the Israelis and Palestinians has made the yet-to-be-revealed “ultimate deal” a non-starter and has ended the US role as a mediator in the eyes of the Palestinians.

“I will not talk with them, period. Period,” Mr Erekat told the forum. “America is no longer a broker in the conflict, it is a side of the conflict,”

He continued: “President Trump and his art of negotiation has put me in a position where I have nothing to lose; Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, settlements are now legal. What would I talk to him about?”

When it comes to the White House’s highly-touted but thin-on-detail peace deal, most senior negotiators and peace process veterans remained sceptical.

Mr Herzog, who questions whether the US administration “fully understands the complexity of the issue and what needs to be done,” doubted that the plan would represent a “breakthrough.”

Despite a change in regional priorities and rightward shifts in both Israeli politics and American diplomacy, a two-state solution providing both a Palestinian homeland and retaining Israel’s identity remains the only sustainable solution, whether it is reached in years or decades to come, said Mr Roed-Larson.

“Palestinian identity is glued to a Palestinian state, and that peace cannot be reached without a state as Palestinians will not give up that identity,” he said. “If it is not based on a two-state solution, it will not fly.”