The Washington Diplomat / November 2014
By Larry Luxner
As the Washington representative of a stateless people for the last five years, Maen Rashid Areikat seems a lot more optimistic than he should be.
Since mid-2009, Areikat — a 54-year-old career diplomat who enjoys fine Cuban cigars and lively political debates — has headed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission to the United States. During that time, the influence of his moderate Fatah faction has declined, while Fatah’s far more militant rival Hamas has grown dramatically in popularity, both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to build Jewish settlements in occupied territory, over the protests of Netanyahu’s counterpart in Ramallah, President Mahmoud Abbas, who looks increasingly impotent in the face of failed peace talks. The Israelis themselves — having shifted to the right in recent years — appear less willing than ever to trust the Palestinians in resuming talks that would return Israel to its 1967 borders as part of an elusive two-state solution.
Gaza is still smoldering from this summer’s Israeli air and ground invasion, which began after three Jewish yeshiva students were kidnapped and murdered. Hundreds of Palestinians were rounded up in the ensuing Israeli dragnet, one Palestinian boy was burned to death, Hamas began lobbing relentless rocket fire toward Israel and the PLO government in the West Bank was relegated to the sidelines as Hamas and Israel traded blows. The 50-day conflict, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, killed 67 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel, and more than 2,100 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including 500 children, according to the United Nations.
Since then, the Israel-Palestine struggle itself has been overshadowed by the Islamic State, a Sunni fundamentalist group now terrorizing millions of people throughout Iraq and Syria — and giving Muslims everywhere a bad name. Netanyahu recently equated the Islamic State with Hamas as “branches of the same tree,” a public relations tactic that puts Palestinians on the defensive at a time when PLO leaders would much rather be discussing things like statehood, legitimacy and international recognition.
Despite the bleak state of affairs, Areikat hasn’t given up on his dream of an independent Palestine, a dream that has fascinated the global consciousness for more than 66 years.
“I’ve been here for five years, and professionally, I can’t say I’m more optimistic or hopeful than when I came. But I see changes happening, even here in the U.S.,” he told The Washington Diplomat during a two-hour interview at the PLO’s gleaming new mission fronting Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. “The government and the American people are somehow getting tired of this continuing conflict. One would have expected they’d abandon the idea, but I think there’s a serious, genuine desire to end it.”
Areikat spoke to us on Oct. 8, the day before representatives of Fatah and Hamas met in Gaza City — in the first national consensus meeting since the Hamas takeover of the tiny coastal enclave in 2007. Several days later, at an international donor conference in Cairo, foreign countries led by Qatar pledged $5.4 billion to help rebuild Gaza, where the recent war left some 100,000 Gazans homeless and much of the crowded strip’s infrastructure in shambles.
And in another hopeful sign, Sweden in early October said it would recognize Palestine — thereby becoming the first European Union member state to do so, although it did not indicate a timeframe for recognition. (In a largely symbolic vote, the British Parliament also passed a nonbinding resolution to recognize a Palestinian state.)
Predictably, Sweden’s announcement angered both the United States and Israel, with Netanyahu warning it would harm the peace process and the State Department saying it was “premature.” All told, 134 countries now recognize Palestine.
Yet in the long run, the only country that really controls Palestine’s destiny is the state of Israel — and on that front, things don’t look too promising at the moment.
“The Netanyahu government’s aim is to prolong the status quo. They think this can go on for another 50 years, with Gaza separated and the West Bank under their control,” Areikat complained. “They don’t pay the price of this occupation. Israel today is in a very comfortable situation. Security-wise, they are not confronting any security threats in the West Bank. The fact they have not been genuinely engaged in peace talks has contributed to Palestinian despair and hopelessness.”
To make matters worse, Israel’s campaign in Gaza was a failure, accomplishing only one thing, at least according to Areikat: increased hatred by Palestinians of their Jewish neighbors. “Both peoples went to the extreme,” he lamented. “It didn’t serve anyone’s interest but the extremists.”
Areikat dismissed the notion that ceaseless rocket attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilians justified the powerful assault on Gaza. He says the real reason for Operation Protective Edge “was to undermine the national consensus” that had emerged between Fatah and Hamas under the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority. After the U.S.-led peace talks collapsed earlier this year, Abbas announced that he would form a technocratic unity government with Hamas, a move that was promptly denounced by Israel and the United States. Some speculate that the crackdown in the West Bank following the murder of three Jewish teens in June was really a pretext to sabotage the reconciliation— and re-arrest some of the Palestinian prisoners that had been released as part of peace negotiations.
“Israel did not hide its intentions from the beginning, when they called on Abbas to renege on his agreement with Hamas,” Areikat argues. “Even during the onslaught, following the disappearance of the three teenage settlers, Netanyahu made it clear that he expected Abbas to cancel his agreement with Hamas.”
That, Areikat claimed, is because the Israelis don’t want Gaza (population 1.8 million) and the West Bank (population 2.7 million) to constitute a single geographic unit. “Throughout history, except for the period from 1948 to 1967, the people of Gaza and the West Bank always managed to reach each other. Even under the most difficult years of the occupation, people would communicate without any problem,” he said. “Now, for political reasons, Israel wants to keep Gaza separate from the West Bank. They believe that would invalidate the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Areikat, who describes himself as “Palestinian to the bone,” 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,” Areikat said of his father, who died in 1994. The diplomat still maintains a house in his birthplace of 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 for six years at Orient House — the PLO’s former 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 spent far more time in Ramallah, the West Bank’s financial center, serving from 1998 to 2008 at the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department before landing his current job in Washington.
“The PLO is the spiritual force driving the Palestinian people. It is the one organization that has put the Palestinians on the political map,” said Areikat, who lives in Washington with his Ramallah-born wife Jumana and their three sons, Rashid, Saif and Amr. “To the vast majority of the Palestinian people, the PLO remains the legitimate umbrella of Palestinian national aspirations. Hamas is a force to reckon with. Nobody can cancel Hamas out, but Hamas is not the majority.”
He added: “For us, the PLO is a sacred organization. Our effort is to bring Hamas into the fold of the PLO, not to bring the PLO into the fold of Hamas.”
The PLO, founded in 1964, claims to represent all 11 million Palestinians, both those living in historical Palestine and those in the diaspora. Areikat believes most of these Palestinians see 79-year-old Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, as their legitimate representative, even though they may not agree with the PLO’s policies, its long history of infighting and corruption or Abbas’s failure to secure major concessions from Israel.
“I’ve always found him to be a very honest, straightforward person who says the same thing in public as he does in private,” Areikat said of his boss, whom he’s known ever since Abbas became prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2003.
“He’s one of the historical leaders of the PLO and has devoted most of his life to the Palestinian cause. What I admire most about him is his courage. He has taken many positions that were not popular with Palestinians,” Areikat told The Diplomat, referring to Abu Mazen’s rejection of the Hamas doctrine that refuses to recognize Israel. “Until today, he is unwavering in his opposition to violence, because he believes this is not in the interest of the Palestinian people. That has personally inspired me. There is nothing more that President Abbas wants to see than an end to this Israeli military occupation.”
That may be the case, but many Palestinians increasingly question whether Abbas is capable of making that happen. After repeatedly coming up empty-handed in U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel, Abbas has tried to strengthen his hand at the United Nations, with mixed results.
In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to grant Palestine non-member observer status. In his most recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September, many observers expected Abbas to take the next step and announce that he would join the International Criminal Court, the Palestinians’ trump card because it would pave the way for a war-crimes investigation of Israel. Instead, he called on the U.N. Security Council to support a clear deadline — November 2016 — for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories in a fiery speech declaring the peace process essentially dead. It’s a largely toothless maneuver, though, because the United States would veto any such resolution or, at the very least, significantly water it down.
But Palestinian officials have said that if such a resolution were blocked or vetoed, they would immediately seek to join the International Criminal Court. The Palestinians tried that approach last year but were dissuaded from doing so by the Americans, Areikat conceded. Indeed, many say the ICC threat is a bluff because American assistance — which constitutes a significant portion of the PLO’s budget — would instantly be cut off, as would tax transfers from Israel, plunging the already-battered Palestinian economy into a tailspin.
In addition, joining the ICC could backfire by opening the door to war-crimes charges against Hamas, such as using children as human shields or knowingly firing missiles at Israel from schools and hospitals.
But Hamas doesn’t seem too concerned with the ICC. Izzat Rishq, a senior official of the militant group, told The GuardianThat defiance has won over many frustrated Palestinians and further eroded the relevance of Abbas’s West Bank-based Fatah party. Even though Hamas courted Israeli bombs and rockets that pummeled Gaza, its popularity among residents actually grew after the offensive.
The West is now looking to strengthen Fatah by leaving it in charge of reconstruction, civil affairs and border crossings in Gaza, although it remains to be seen if Hamas will truly cede control of the strip. While the two factions appear to have reconciled for the moment, past agreements have frequently broken down.
But perhaps the biggest single factor that has weakened Abbas in the eyes of many Palestinians are Jewish settlements, which have continued unabated in recent years, chipping away at the prospect of ever creating a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
Since 1967, the number of Jews in the West Bank has grown to 382,000, while more than 300,000 Jews live in East Jerusalem. In addition, Israeli construction of a 250-mile separation barrier 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.
Areikat warned that if Israel continues to build settlements in disputed territory, there will soon be little to talk about. With that in mind, Washington-based, pro-peace J Street says it will pour all its lobbying efforts into fighting the establishment of new settlements. Last year, according to Israel’s own Bureau of Statistics, settlement construction jumped by 123 percent compared to 2012 figures — even as peace negotiations were ongoing.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, said opposing such construction is “crucial to preserving the viability of the two-state solution and Israel’s long-term future as a democracy” and as a Jewish homeland.
But it would be a fallacy to think that all or even most of these Jewish settlers are bearded extremists in kippahs and side curls, bent on spreading Zionism throughout the Palestinian heartland. Many, in fact, are secular Jews (including immigrants from the former Soviet Union) lured to the West Bank by relatively cheap, government-subsidized housing. For the equivalent of $200,000 — the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in a south Tel Aviv slum — one can buy a brand new four-bedroom villa in Ariel.
That’s why Areikat doesn’t believe most settlers would resist the Israel Defense Forces if the Arabs and Jews one day reach a peace agreement and settlers are forced to evacuate — as they were in 1982 when Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, or in 2005 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza.
“Do not let anybody fool you by telling you these settlers are functioning without the protection of the Israeli Army. They dare not enter a Palestinian area if they know the army is not there to rescue them,” he said. “I don’t believe these settlers can challenge the authority of the government. Some of them are there for religious reasons, but most are there for the economic subsidies. The minute the government offers them incentives to leave, they’ll be back in Tel Aviv. I can guarantee that.”
Another stalling tactic in the peace talks, Areikat claimed, is the Netanyahu government’s insistence that the Palestinians officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
“We rejected and we continue to reject it,” he said, noting that the PLO recognized the state of Israel in 1993, but that recognizing it as an exclusively Jewish state would endanger the rights of 1.5 million Arabs with Israeli citizenship living inside Israel. “Sixty-six years later, they are still fighting for equality within Israel,” Areikat said. “They are considered third- or fourth-class citizens in their own country.”
Recognizing Israel as an inherently Jewish country would also set a dangerous precedent that would only undermine the peace process, he warned.
“Look at the Islamic State. See what happens when political systems change their names,” Areikat suggested. “Netanyahu knows in advance that we will not accept it. That’s why he keeps repeating it. By accepting his demand that we recognize Israel as a Jewish state, he wants us to say that their historical narrative of the conflict is accurate, and ours is inaccurate. There’s no way on Earth we will acknowledge that.”
Speaking of the Islamic State, Areikat thinks it’s ridiculous to equate Hamas with a group of marauding extremists happy to kill fellow Muslims in pursuit of an Islamic caliphate (extremists who also happen to care less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consider Hamas members to be apostates). The parallel, though, is based on both militant organizations’ embrace of fundamentalist Islam, and the fact that both are considered terrorist groups by the State Department and a number of European countries.
“This is totally absurd. There is a big difference between Hamas and ISIS,” Areikat said, referring to an alternate name for the Islamic State. “For one, Hamas is confining its struggle within a well-defined geographic area. They have clear objectives. We disagree with them on tactics, but at least they don’t target others outside Palestine.”
He continued: “I think the analogy between Hamas and ISIS is a very desperate effort on the part of Israel to poison the whole Palestinian people. Nobody’s buying that. Netanyahu knows there is a difference between Hamas and the Islamic State extremists who are indiscriminately targeting all kinds of people.”
Hamas, though, also indiscriminately targets people through rocket fire. While its homemade rockets are crude and incapable of inflicting mass damage, they have reached as far as Tel Aviv and spread fear throughout Israel.
Areikat has walked a fine line promoting the PLO without endorsing Hamas. Throughout the 50-day war, he went toe to toe in the media with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, as both men made the rounds on PBS NewsHour and other news outlets to plead their case to the American public.
But the two men have never met in person. “I’m not against meeting if there is something substantive, but not if it’s just an opportunity for him to say, ‘I saw the Palestinian ambassador,’” said Areikat (who was charmed by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, upon his arrival in 2009).
For the time being, Areikat continues his lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, the White House and the Washington think-tank circuit. Last month, he met for the first time with Republican Senate leaders including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte and Arizona’s John McCain.
After five years in the hot seat, though, Areikat concedes that the job has taken a toll on his personal life. “Public work is very demanding, and Washington has its way of consuming people,” he told us. “When you have a family and your kids are growing up, this is the only time you can spend with them, and it’s really difficult to create a balance.”
But now isn’t the time to quit, he said, insisting that the Palestinians can overcome their internal rift to present a united front.
On that note, Areikat said he hopes long-overdue Palestinian elections will take place sometime next year. According to a survey conducted in mid-September by the Gaza-based House of Wisdom Institute, only 10 percent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would vote for Abbas if those elections were held today.
Even in the relatively stable West Bank, Abbas is struggling, with only 25 percent of respondents there saying they’d vote for the incumbent. Yet in the same poll of 1,200 Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza, the non-violent path to independence advocated by Abbas beat the one espoused by Hamas by a 32 percent margin.
“Unfortunately, the war on Gaza that Israel embarked on delayed the priorities. When we formed the government on June 2, our intention was to hold elections within six to nine months,” said Areikat. “But with all efforts now focused on alleviating the humanitarian and economic crisis, I think this will take a little bit longer.”
He added: “Once we overcome the immediate needs to address the catastrophic conditions that were created as a result of Israel’s war, and once Fatah and Hamas agree on the mandate of this national consensus, I believe we will be in a better position to look to the future.”
Areikat says the Israelis should also be looking to the future, suggesting that they too are exhausted from the never-ending conflict — which is why they should be talking to the Palestinians, rather than Congress or the White House.
“We are the only party that can really provide Israel with peace and security, because we’re going to share that same land with them — and we are not leaving that land,” he said.
“The Oslo accords called for a conclusion of negotiations in 1999 that would lead to a Palestinian state. Imagine if Israel had agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state 15 years ago, how the situation on the ground would be different. The security threats against Israel in 1999 were minimal compared to 2014. With all the geopolitical changes taking place in the region, Israel is no safer today than it was two years ago. The longer Israel waits, the more the threats against it will increase.”
Israel can’t wait forever, Areikat added — and he is optimistic that it won’t.
“I still think the majority of Israelis want to see an end to the conflict,” the envoy said. “This current Israeli government does not have the courage or intention to engage genuinely. They’re just buying time. Netanyahu hasn’t taken one single political step toward ending the conflict; he’s only consolidating the occupation, imposing facts on the ground and making Palestinians lose hope. My faith is in the Israeli people.”