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With Widening Israeli-Palestinian Gulf, PLO Envoy Clings to Statehood Dream
The Washington Diplomat / January 2010

By Larry Luxner

Born in Jericho, one of the oldest cities on Earth, and raised in the thick of one of the world's most vexing political conundrums — the Arab-Israeli conflict — Maen Rashid Areikat knows exactly what he's up against.

As representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States, Areikat has been the official voice of his people in the United States for the past eight months. Declaring himself "Palestinian to the bone" during an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Areikat outlined his vision for a future Palestinian state in the face of increasing anger over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and unrelenting poverty in the Gaza Strip.

"I share the same goals and objectives as all Palestinians: to be independent and get rid of the Israeli military occupation," he said, speaking from his second-floor office at the PLO mission just off Dupont Circle. "And I would like to believe that I represent all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and also here in the United States."

The 49-year-old diplomat says he's optimistic about the future, but it's hard to see why — especially in light of continuing bitterness between the Hamas and Fatah political movements and the hardline policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who has no intention of ending Jewish colonization of the West Bank.

"I think that with the Obama administration's assertion that it's a national security interest to have a Palestinian state next to Israel, we're seeing a different tone and hopefully a different approach than before," he said. "The United States will not allow this conflict to persist and undermine its interests. I think this is my strongest source of optimism. I see an administration that has not abandoned the pursuit of peace. They may have taken a break for the time being, but I believe strongly that they cannot afford to let it slip out of their hands."

That's because, he says, the United States for the first time has a president who understands the needs of the Arab world.

"President Obama is doing the right thing," Areikat told The Diplomat."His administration is genuine and sincere about its intentions. The president himself is personally committed to this objective. They have an excellent team at work, one of the finest that's ever been assembled. But it's only been nine months, and I don't want to judge if they succeeded or failed. It's too early."

Still, Areikat did little to hide his displeasure at the White House's recent backpedaling on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Israel calls "Judea and Samaria."

In a landmark speech in Cairo last June, Obama boldly declared that "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop" — even calling for a halt to so-called "natural growth."

But two months ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu for offering a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction, even though he insists on the completion of 3,000 housing units and on building anywhere inside East Jerusalem, which Netanyahu vows will never be divided to become the future capital of a Palestinian state.

"When you have high expectations, you end up not realizing them, it's natural to feel disappointed," Areikat said, carefully avoiding any direct criticism of Obama or any members of his cabinet. "What we would like to see is a translation of their good intentions into practical steps that would lead to a just, comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This can only happen if the U.S. takes a balanced, even-handed approach. You cannot cover up for one party that is not responding or even being receptive."

Clinton also called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to re-engage in negotiations with Israel, saying those Jewish settlements should not be an impediment to ongoing talks. Abbas has refused to resume negotiations — now frozen for more than a year — saying the proposal falls far short of initial demands that Israelis stop all settlement construction without exception.

"Israel's moratorium on settlements is a total joke," Areikat charged. "Just a few days ago, the same Israeli government that announced the moratorium said it would pump millions of dollars into settlements they consider important to Israel's national security. I don't think the Israeli government is serious about this. The only way they can prove they are is to rein in these extremist settlers, who are not only threatening Palestinians but also defying their own government which is protecting them."

In mid-December, ultra-Orthodox Jewish vandals raided a mosque in the West Bank village of Yasuf, burning furniture, prayer rugs and holy texts and defacing the mosque's walls. The attack outraged local Arabs, despite the fact that a group of Zionist rabbis and Jewish peace activists from all across Israel later visited the village in order to help clean up the mosque.

"We always warned against activities like that," the PLO representative said. Torching the Koran is a repugnant act taken by these fanatics. This proves that these extremists will do whatever they can to undermine any prospect of peace in the region. And I don't know if Netanyahu is willing to take them on and risk losing his own coalition. By accepting them to be in a coalition in the first place, he basically handcuffed himself."

Palestinians claim the Netanyahu government has no intentions of ever curbing settlement growth. Since 1967, the number of settlers in the West Bank has grown to 300,000, while some 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem. In addition, Israeli construction of a 250-mile separation barrier (projected to stretch more than 400 miles) has successfully prevented suicide attacks but also disrupted Palestinian life in the West Bank, effectively annexing more than 12 percent of Palestinian land according to pre-1967 borders.

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently put it, "These are not small developments. They have changed the physical appearance of the Middle East. More important, they have transformed the psychologies of the protagonists. Israelis have walled themselves off from Palestinians. They are less interested than ever in a deal with people they hardly see."

Meanwhile, Abbas — after unsuccessfully floating the idea of a unilateral U.N. declaration of statehood — has said he's not interested in running for re-election, threatening to leave a dangerous power vacuum in an already divided political house. The announcement had little impact in Gaza, where Hamas hasn't budged since its violent split with Abbas's Fatah party, leaving the Palestinians without a united voice in any peace negotiations — a situation that doesn’t look like it will be changing anytime soon.

In fact, at a recent rally to mark the 22nd anniversary of his militant organization's founding, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh warned that gaining control of the Gaza Strip was "just a step" toward liberating all of Palestine — and that Hamas would never accept Israel under any conditions.

"This movement liberated the Gaza Strip with the help of the militant factions," Haniyeh told thousands of cheering supporters in Gaza City. "Brothers and sisters, we will not be satisfied with Gaza. Hamas looks toward the whole of Palestine."

Areikat says Abbas's frustration shouldn't have come as a surprise.

"Hamas refused to allow the PLO's Central Election Commission to enter Gaza, and the president said there would be no elections without Gaza," he explained, carefully acknowledging "differences" between the two factions. "We are willing to reconcile immediately with Hamas if they accept the Egyptian proposal submitted in mid-October. They have so far refused to sign on. But if they do, it would constitute a good basis for reconciliation between the two sides."

Regardless of the Fatah-Hamas split, Areikat says the onus still needs to be on Israel to do what the international community has long demanded: stop illegal settlement growth in the West Bank and loosen its stranglehold on Gaza.

"Gaza is continuously under siege, and basic materials are not allowed into Gaza. While Israel claims it has withdrawn from Gaza physically, according to international law the Gaza Strip remains under occupation. Anytime a power has the ability to re-occupy the territory they withdraw from, that power is still technically occupying that territory."

Areikat also bristled at suggestions that Palestinians should offer "goodwill measures" to show Israel they are serious at bringing about an end to the decades-long conflict.

"Wasn't it sufficient that in 1988, we conceded 78 percent of historic Palestine in order to reach peace with Israel?" he demanded. "We the Palestinians have already agreed to build our own state on 22 percent of what used to be historic Palestine. And now the Israelis want us to compromise on the 22 percent?"

Israel should be the one to show "goodwill" he insists — and the only goodwill measure that interests Areikat is for Israel "to end their military occupation of Palestine" and allow his people to live in peace and security."

"They use this pretext that the Palestinians cannot maintain security. But I think weνve done a lot in order to reach a solution with the Israelis. Let me take you back to 1988, when we renounced violence and acknowledged Israel's right to exist within their own secure borders. And what have the Israelis done? The state they want for us is a demilitarized state, with no control of airspace, international borders or natural resources. That's a protectorate, not a Palestinian state."

He added: "We never considered Israeli compliance with international law as being a concession. You concede something that is yours, not something that is not yours. So if Israel agrees to withdraw to pre-1967 borders, they will be withdrawing from a land that did not belong to them in the first place."

Areikat comes from a family that's been involved in politics since the days of the Ottoman Empire. One of his grand-uncles was speaker of the Jordanian parliament in the 1960s, and his father, Rashid Areikat, was politically active under the Israeli occupation.

"He was subjected to Israeli measures, banned from leaving the country, jailed many times and was almost expelled on one occasion," he said of his father, who died in 1994.

The diplomat still maintains a house in Jericho, an ancient, relatively quiet West Bank city of 25,000 located about 20 miles east of Jerusalem. He has a bachelor's degree in finance from Arizona State University and an MBA in management from Western International University.

Following diplomatic training at Canada's Ministry of External Affairs in Ottawa, Areikat worked six years at Orient House — the PLO's headquarters in East Jerusalem — as spokesman for the late Faisal Husseini, one of the organization's top negotiators at the Madrid peace talks.

But Areikat far more time in Ramallah, the West Bank's financial capital, serving from 1998 until last year at the PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department, most recently as its deputy head and coordinator-general. Throughout the course of his career, he's traveled extensively throughout Europe and abroad, taking part in numerous Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and Middle East peace conferences.

Areikat rejected comparisons with his predecessor, the gregarious, outgoing Afif Safieh, who served in Washington from 2005 to 2008 and went on to become the PLO's ambassador in Moscow. Last August, Safieh was elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council and a few months ago became Fatah's deputy commissioner for international relations.

"Everyone has his different style," said Areikat, who lives in Washington with his Ramallah-born wife Jumana and their three young boys, Rashid, Saif and Amr. "I would like to be thought of independently of the performance of my predecessors, but rather build on their strengths and move forward. When I decided to take this job, I had in the back of my mind a certain approach, and I'm trying to implement it right now."

That approach involves trying — on a shoestring budget — to boost the PLO's influence on Capitol Hill and the White House through conferences, dinners and familiarization trips to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We don't want Americans to be pro-Palestinian, I want them to be even-handed This is what I'm telling congressional leaders. This is the problem with people on the Hill. They're fed misinformation, then they judge us," he said.

"This is a continuous operation. We're trying to bring in very qualified, skilled people to help us in our multi-dimensional activities. We are focusing on media and public relations, because we know this is one of our weaknesses. Unfortunately, the media has not been very fair or balanced."

Areikat added, however, that "it's much better than 25 years ago. Today, when you say you're a Palestinian, it doesn't have a negative connotation like it did in the 70s or 80s."

The representative declined to reveal his mission's annual budget, only to say "we are very much under-financed compared to other embassies in Washington, and especially compared to our Israeli counterparts."

The PLO mission also has ongoing outreach programs involving universities, mosques, churches and synagogues.

"We reach out to different Jewish groups, not only on the center and left, but also people who are pro-Israel," he explained. "Last year, when I came here, I met with two legal advisers on the board of AIPAC [American-Israel Public Affairs Committee]. It was the first time a high-level Palestinian delegation visited AIPAC headquarters. I maintain contact with them. It's one way of getting to know the viewpoints of people on the other side."

Asked about Israel's new ambassador, Michael Oren, Areikat says he hasn't had much to do with him. "I was briefly introduced into him at the Ramadan reception and we exchanged some niceties," he said, but that was the extent of their interaction.

On the other hand, he said, "we believe we are an important player despite the fact we are not granted full embassy privileges" by the United States.

"Although we are not an embassy, we get very decent treatment from the State Department and the White House. We don't have the immunity given to other diplomats, but they try to make us feel that we belong to the diplomatic community. I think this administration is showing a desire to make our life easier."

Meanwhile, the West Bank is pushing ahead, albeit modestly, with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plans to establish the parameters of an economically viable de facto state. This year, despite ongoing hostilities in the region, the West Bank — home to 2.2 million Palestinians — is expected to enjoy 7 percent GDP growth.

The first-ever planned Palestinian city, Rawabi, is slowly taking shape six miles north of Ramallah. Designed for up to 40,000 residents, Rawabi represents an $800 million investment and is expected to create between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs; homes will sell for around $150,000 each and offers young Palestinian families the opportunity to purchase real-estate via American-style mortgages.

Yet Areikat says the West Bank's recent prosperity is no thanks to Israel.

"Some people wrongly think that it's all due to Israeli measures to remove checkpoints and roadblocks. This is not the case," he said. "Our prosperity is largely due to the fact that the Palestinian government has been taking steps to consolidate the economy, encourage investment and provide an atmosphere conducive to investors."

According to World Bank figures from 2008, said annual per-capita income in the West Bank was around $3,000, and a meager $1,800 in Gaza. That compares to just over $27,500 for Israel.

"In 2002, the World Bank issued a report saying the Palestinian economy would prosper and the government wouldn't have any debts if the Israelis removed their restrictions and allowed the free movement of goods and people," he said. "Our fundamental problem is the Israeli military occupation, which is strangling the Palestinian economy."

Areikat also complained that Palestinian products don't enjoy the same market access as Israeli products.

"While Israel uses the Best Bank and Gaza as its largest markets, we are not allowed to export Palestinian products into Israel. There are so many restrictions. If they removed these restrictions, we wouldn't need to rely on international aid," he said.

Although the free flow of movement and goods remains a key impediment to statehood, perhaps nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more emotional — or intractable — than Jerusalem. Recent clashes erupted in this religious tinderbox of holy sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, sparking fears that there could be a renewed round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Adding to the turmoil are the ongoing evictions of Palestinian families contrasted with ongoing new housing construction for Jews in East Jerusalem — all against the backdrop of Netanyahu's adamant refusal that Israel ever relinquish control of the city, which Israel claims as its eternal capital.

Last month, the city's mayor, Nir Barkat, told an audience at George Washington University that Jerusalem — which was reunited after Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 — must never again be divided. Asked about that, Areikat smirked.

"Who are they trying to fool?" he said. "Physically, it is divided, religiously it is divided, and if you compare the services, Palestinians are paying the same amount of taxes yet there is blatant discrimination aganst us. So what is Nir Barkat talking about? Does he live in Fantasyland?"

Areikat continued: "Despite all of Israel's efforts, there is no unification of Jerusalem. Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians who live in the West Bank and Gaza, and those in surrounding countries, are banned from visiting their holy sites — while American Muslims or Jews or Christians can go to their holy sites. Jerusalem should not be monopolized by one faith only. Jerusalem belongs to three faiths. The solution must be East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state."

Areikat would have a hard time convincing the average Israeli to give up Jewish claims to all of Jerusalem, though he says "I think the Israeli public is much more reasonable than Barkat. A majority in Israel still believe in a two-state solution, even with Netanyahu leading the government."

And if that doesnνt happen, the diplomat said he would "try other venues" — including the United Nations, though that route seems unlikely to yield success according to most observers. "The U.N. has always been a tool used by many nations to achieve their political goals," Areikat counters. "We should be entitled to go to the U.N. and ask them to issue a resolution supporting a Palestinian state."

Among Israeli Jews, one of the most pressing issues that needs to be resolved first is the continued detention by Hamas of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was abducted in 2006 by militants who had snuck into Israel through an underground tunnel from the Gaza Strip.

In early December, the Netanyahu government appeared on the verge of releasing 980 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, though that deal lately seems to have collapsed.

"It's evident that the issue of Shalit is very dominant for his family and friends," said Areikat. "But that shouldn't distract anyone from the real issues here: Why did Hamas take Shalit as a prisoner? There was a state of war, and they captured a soldier. If Israel was not carrying out hostile attacks against Gaza and subjecting the Palestinians to humiliation and mistreatment, why would the Palestinians try to kidnap an Israeli soldier?"

Asked about the prisoner swap, Areikat said the PLO has nothing to do with it, and that all negotiations are being handled by German mediators. But he didn't seem optimistic that returning Shalit to Israel would a resolution of the Shalit problem would solve anything in the long run.

"The prisoner swap will have absolutely no effect. It could relax tensions for a few days, but in the long run, that is not going to contribute to solving the problem," he said. "People like to get distracted. The core issue is that Israel wants to keep the land."

And at the end of the day, Areikat says the conflict boils down to land, and Israelis will eventually have to make the choice between occupation and peace.

"As long as the Israelis occupy our people, they are not going to have peace and security. If their leadership cannot understand this, they're just burying their heads in the sand. The core issue is Israel's military occupation of Palestine. Once that is over, the Palestinians will have no reason to be enemies of Israel."

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