Exclusive Interview: Ambassador Maen Areikat, Chief Representative of PLO to US

As Secretary of State John Kerry presses Israel and Palestine to revive their long-awaited peace talks, Ambassador Maen Areikat, the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the U.S., remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the people whom he represents.

Areikat says last year’s vote in the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state, gave the Palestine Authority the support needed to gain membership in international organizations, offering tools to fulfill the needs of the Palestinian people.

Still, the greatest obstacle to achieving full statehood and peace in the region remains the relationship between Israel, the U.S. and Palestine and each country’s willingness to improve bilateral relations and resolve issues such as human rights abuses, settlements and more.

Host Carmen Russell-Sluchansky spoke with Ambassador Maen Areikat, chief representative of the P.L.O. to the U.S., to discuss the latest in Palestinian issues.

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Well, Ambassador, thank you very much for your time. I really do appreciate it. First of all, could you take a moment to introduce yourself, give us your name and position?

I am Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat and I am the chief representative of the P.L.O to the United States.

And how long have you served in this position?

I’ve been here for four years now.

And what did you do before that?

Before that I was the deputy head of the negotiation affairs department of the P.L.O. and the coordinator general. I worked at the negotiation affairs department for 11 years before I assumed my position here.

As the chief representative, obviously your primary concern is U.S.-Palestinian relations. Can you give us an evaluation? Obviously it’s been a relationship that has had a lot of ups and downs for the last many decades. Can you give us a sense of how you feel about the relationship in these current times?

Well first of all, the Palestinians have always sought a better relationship with the United States. From the beginning of the conflict with Israel, the Palestinians did not choose to have a bad relationship with the United States. I believe that it was totally due to U.S. positions that supported Israel, that favored Israel over the Palestinians and over the Arabs and was perceived by Palestinians and by Arabs in the Middle East as being anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab.

So we did not have a choice in formulating that relationship. And we have always said we do not mind having a better relationship with the United States. Unfortunately, for many reasons, mostly domestic reasons here in this country, the United States could not improve its relationship with the Palestinians or have an even-handed approach to the conflict. Still today, they are struggling with that. Still today, I don’t believe that the U.S. approach is even-handed and balanced.

WATCH: Due Diligence: 3 Minutes with Ambassador Maen Areikat, Chief Representative of PLO to US

On that, what do you think the cause? There’s a lot of historical rooting in the way that the U.S. has treated the Palestinian-Israeli issue. What do you see as the historical cause of that? Is it the relationship that the U.S. has had with Israel? What do you think it was?

Well I think there are more than one reason for that. One is lack of understanding of the region on the part of the United States and this, unfortunately, continues until today. You see all these experts on TV, commentators, analysts who try to evaluate and assess the situation in the Middle East and they do lack the fundamental knowledge of the culture, of the traditions, of the politics, of the geopolitical dimensions of the Middle East. The United States has not been successful in making always the right evaluation of the situation in the Middle East.

Then you have the period of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, and again the policies and the Arabs did not choose to be the allies of the Soviet Union. It was only after the United States and the Western World shunned them and refused to provide support, economic, political and military support that countries like Egypt in the 50s and others went to the Soviet Union who welcomed the Arabs because they were a balance to U.S. influence in the region and therefore we, for a long period of time until the late 80s, we were part of that Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. And Israel figured in this Cold War situation as being an ally of the United States and the West and that also improved their conditions here in the United States.

Thirdly, the impact of the pro-Israel and the American Jewish community in the United States. Now you have to distinguish between the two. The pro-Israel lobby in this country does not necessarily always do things that serve the interest of the United States, or Israel to that matter. And the American Jewish community, which is a community that arrived here some 60 years ago, after persecution in Europe, and they managed to get integrated into American society, they managed to make it here, to succeed, to get education and to occupy very important and influential positions. 1.5 to 2 percent of the population in the United States is Jewish. And yet sometimes you think they are considered to be the majority in this country because of their influence, but they managed to do that through perseverance and hard work and struggle to improve their conditions and to be integrated within the American society.

So I believe these three… Maybe we can add another is the failure of the Arabs and the Palestinians and the Muslim world to present their case in a way that is acceptable to the American audience and unfortunately let extremists and radicals relay that message to the American people and the United States and the Western world. They did in a way damage our image and reputation in the United States so we are learning from all of these experiences and I think we are trying to improve and we are trying to make better impact on the decision-making process in this country, but it is important to be able to present your case in a way that appeals to the American public.

When you talk about extremists, does Hamas fall into that category? Have they been a very large obstruction to better U.S.-Palestinian relations? Especially considering that they were democratically elected in Gaza Strip. They do have power and authority in the Palestinian Territories.

Well, the word extremist or extreme does not necessarily mean that it is a bad word. When you have extreme views or extreme opinions, it means that you take a completely different view or position from the mainstream or from what is acceptable. I think that Hamas is a power to reckon with within the Palestinian society and within the Palestinian people. And they are a political organization that has a military wing, but they do have support among the Palestinian people that we cannot deny, we cannot ignore. At one point, the P.L.O. adopted policies that were also viewed by some as being extreme and hard line and it took us some time to transform ourselves from a revolutionary organization, relying on armed struggle to achieve our political objectives as a political organization. So I look at Hamas and I think of the P.L.O. in the 60s and this is exactly the argument we are having with Hamas that we tried that path. We tried the path of armed struggle and violence and it did not pay off. And when you are squaring off against a much more powerful enemy, like Israel, which has an army that is considered to be the sixth largest army with sophisticated U.S. weapons and military capabilities and you have limited resources, resorting to a military struggle or military means is not going to achieve your objective and I’m not being a defeatist here. At one point in my life, I supported the armed struggle of the P.L.O., but you have to adjust and accommodate given the political circumstances and conditions.

You mention the changes in the P.L.O. strategy as well as the policy. How long has it been a policy of the P.L.O. to push for a two-state solution to the situation?

The P.L.O. in 1988 took the historic decision of accepting a two-state solution and we call it the historic compromise of accepting a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as its capital when 22 percent of what used to be historic Palestine. I think ever since 1988, the P.L.O. political leadership has been supportive of the two-state solution.

Even today, when you see Israeli settlements, walls, confiscation of land, closures, seize of different Palestinian areas, not allowing Palestinians to enter Jerusalem, to worship freely, we still are committed to the two-state solution because we believe it is the ideal conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the fact that there are many among the Palestinians and even Israelis and within the international community who are calling for a binational state that will include Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians and they can all live in one binational state.

We are still committed to the two-state solution because we believe this will be able to address and deal with the political causes that started the conflict and will allow the two sides to ponder and explore and contemplate future coexistence and cooperation between two sovereign states living side by side in peace and security.

We have made a major sacrifice when we said we would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Many Palestinians do not agree with us and many Palestinians think that was a very, very painful decision on our part, but it showed that we are a really sincere and interested in putting an end to this conflict. Unfortunately, Israeli governments from 1988 until today have not heeded our calls for an end to the conflict in a way that will allow the two peoples to live peacefully next to each other.

In a binational state, is there any hope that the Palestinian people would have equality?

That’s an important issue because this is our argument when we expressed our reservation about a binational state option because we don’t believe that the Israelis are going to give up control over another people.

Today you have 1.5 million Palestinians who are living in Israel, who hold Israeli citizenship and yet they are being discriminated against, they are being treated as a third and fourth-class citizen. And they are spending all of their time and efforts to become equal to the Jewish population of the state of Israel.

When we argue about whether Israel is a democracy or not a democracy, we say Israel may be a democracy to its own Jewish population, but it has never been a democracy toward the other non-Jewish communities within the state of Israel and therefore, a struggle will only shift to two states that will preserve their identities to a struggle for equality, equal rights, social justice, something similar to what the Palestinians of 1948 are doing inside Israel and it will only take that level of struggle to different dimensions. That doesn’t mean it will speed up our efforts to realize our own national ambitions and objectives. It could prolong the conflict for years to come. Therefore, again, the two-state solution remains the most ideal at this time.

Now given that, we’ve seen efforts by the U.S. to broker a solution, maybe the most far reaching were the Camp David Accords under Bill Clinton. We haven’t seen a lot of effort until now under John Kerry talk about his own two-state plan. Could you evaluate those efforts? Does it take into account the P.L.O.’s concerns going forward about peace and prosperity?

Well first of all, I think Secretary Kerry is genuinely and sincerely in bringing the parties together in order to end the conflict, and I think he has invested time, efforts and resources in order to bring the parties back to sit around the table and discuss all the political issues.

The problems that we are facing are two fold. One Israeli. The other American. On the Israeli side, the Israelis have been very, very clear about the fact that they have no intention to end the conflict with the Palestinian people anytime soon. Israel, under this current government, believes this status quo can go on forever.

As long as Israeli does not think there will be consequences for their continued occupation of the Palestinian people, they will not change the status quo. They believe Israel is economically, security, militarily in a very good shape and therefore, why rush? They look at what’s happening around them in the region and use that as a pretext not to move forward, not knowing that if they sit on the sidelines and let these events unfold in the Middle East, it could reach them in the future and there’s no guarantee that any country, any people in the region will be immune from these swift changes that are taking place.

Israelis are better off shaping the future than just sitting and watching the future unravel and being shaped by others. It always brings back the question, what does Israel want? Do they want to be an integral part of the Middle East or do they want to continue to be a pariah state, a state above the law, continue to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people, continue to defy international law and being an outcast in the region? And it’s true today that the balance of power is in their favor, but does this remain constant? Does it remain the same for 10 years from now, 20 years from now?

This is a very fluid situation. If you look at history, the experiences of people oppressed by much stronger occupiers and oppressors, it didn’t last forever. At some point, the oppressed will rise against the oppressor. And they will put an end of that oppression. So Israel has an opportunity today. You have a Palestinian leadership that is very pragmatic, willing to coexist, willing to end the conflict and live side by side with Israel in peace and security. This leadership may not remain a few years down the road and Israel will miss a very historic opportunity.

The other issue is the American. The United States needs to shift its modus operandi in dealing with Israel. They cannot try to always accommodate Israeli needs and concerns and tailor concerns as to what Israel can or cannot accept. They have to do what is right to provide both Israelis and Palestinians with the conditions and the circumstances to allow both people to live in dignity, freedom and in their own states without any interference from either side.

And the United States needs to hold Israel accountable to their actions. They cannot only set standards of accountability that are applicable to the Palestinians. If we go tot the United Nations, we get punished. Why? Nobody can tell you here. It’s not in violation of international law. It’s not in violation of universal principles. This is a right for every nation, for every people to resort to the United Nations to seek their help.

But if Israel violates international law and builds settlements, which is a contradiction of U.S. declared policies, Israel does not get punished and they continue to provide unstinting political and military support for Israel. This has to change. You cannot get the Israelis to understand the importance of ending the conflict if you on one hand give them unstinting support and on the other hand you pressure the Palestinians to come in line and then let the Israelis go unasked and unpunished about their actions.

Are the settlements the only or at least the primary obstruction for the peace process?

Well the settlements have come to symbolize Israeli colonial ambitions in Palestinian land and Palestinian territories. The Palestinians view settlers as a threat, as a danger to their existence. Israelis, at one point, portrayed attacks against them, violence and terrorism, as being the major threat. And until today, they use that to justify their policies. To us, these extreme settlers, the settlements that are planted in the midst of Palestinian areas and communities are the biggest threat to the Palestinian people and their existence in the land of their ancestors.”

And the fact that Israel is implicitly and explicitly supporting this settlement enterprise tells us that the Israeli government is not sincere. They are trying to change facts on the ground to the point that when we sit and discuss the boundaries of Palestinian state. The Israelis will look at us and say tell us ‘what Palestinian state are you talking about? You cannot have this state that you want. Settle for less than that.’ And this is exactly their objective.

There’s also the issue, and this pertains to that, of the borders. What exactly the border of the Palestinian state would be. How far apart are the two sides on that? I guess the measuring stick being the pre-1967 borders, right? Did you say would be 22 percent?

That would be exactly 22 percent of what used to be historic Palestine. The problem is Israel does not want to commit to the 1967 [border] as being the best line. You cannot negotiate with someone on a future Palestinian state if they do not tell you where they think that Palestinian state will be. Yes, Israel says they support a two-state solution.

The two-state solution has become an acceptable solution/compromise by everyone around the world, even here in the United States, even among the American Jewish community, even among members of the Congress who are strongly supportive of Israel. Everybody says we want to see a state for the Palestinian people.

Our concern is what kind of Palestinian state do the Israelis have in mind for us? Is it the state that they offered us during Camp David in 2000 that will lack its attributes of sovereignty, that will not have any control of its airspaces, electromagnetic spheres, international crossing points, territorial waters, natural resources, and that will be demilitarized and under the mercy of the Israeli army. This is not a state. This is an extension of the Israeli military occupation.

So the boundary and borders of a future Palestinian state. The fact that the state must be sovereign. It must control its own land, people and natural resources, and airspace. All these attributes of sovereignty are very important. As long as Israel is trying to compromise with us on these fundamental issues, I don’t think we will ever reach an agreement with them.

About Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky 360 Articles
Carmen is a multimedia journalist based in Washington, DC whose work has appeared in a variety of outlets including National Geographic, NBC News, the BBC, Asia! Magazine, The China Post, Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel.