The Question of Refugees Is the Essence of the Palestinian Question
PIJ: Let me first ask you for some background: Maybe you can explain the centrality of the refugee issue to the Palestinian narrative and history?

Saeb Erekat: I think the question of refugees is, in many ways, the essence of the Palestinian question. After all, it is people who have been forced to leave their homes, their land, villages and towns. You know, sometimes in the West you hear of an individual's life being interrupted, but in 1948, a whole nation was interrupted. This is how life [was destroyed] - the social structure, the social fabric, the economic fabric, the educational fabric, the commercial fabric, the cultural fabric, water, everything! And then a whole nation was forced to become refugees, and I think this was a most dangerous occurrence in the 20th century and one which remains with us in the 21st century. So I think the refugee issue is a central issue for Israeli-Palestinian peace and negotiations. I am not saying it is more important or less important, but I think it is of equal importance as the issues of Jerusalem, borders, settlements and water, because these are the ones that constitute the components of a permanent solution.

And yet, even though the return of refugees is enshrined in international law, the right of return has often been cited as a major obstacle to an agreement.

I cannot monitor what people say, but what is between the Israelis and the Palestinians are signed agreements, international relations and resolutions based on international legitimacy. The Palestinian leadership has accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and to live in peace and security side by side with the state of Israel. Israel must understand that, in order to solve the problem in all its aspects, it needs to look very carefully at the Arab Peace Initiative (API): What it says about refugees is "a just and agreed-upon solution, in accordance with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194." This is the only way to have a comprehensive solution.

But when you mention the two-state solution, often Israelis say - I know you cannot speak for Israelis, but Israelis often say - that you cannot have a two-state solution and a right to return. You are really talking about a Palestinian state and a Palestinian state in the context…

I do not understand. I do not understand this logic. Why do they say this? The refugees' right to return is a national right and an individual right. The right of the individual refugee is to decide: to go back to Israel proper or to the Palestinian state; they should have options. But a nation cannot give up this right, because it is also an individual right and is provided for by international law. There has to be a just solution based on UN Resolution 194.

So there is no contradiction between the two-state solution and the right of Palestinians to return to their homes?

There is no contradiction.

What are the options that people are talking about? A full return, a partial return, a symbolic return?

This is about individual rights, so there is a mix of opinions. Some will say the right of return, and some will say compensation. I hope that people will agree on what international law provides, what Resolution 194 specifies. It is return and compensation at the same time. It is the individual right to choose to return to their homes, to the Palestinian state, or any other option that will be provided for them.

Then, within the context of negotiations with the Israelis, what is being discussed about exercising this right?

What is being discussed is the right of return, compensation for Palestinians, and every aspect of their choice, whether they return to Israel proper, to the Palestinian state, or to a third country. And then there is something called responsibility. These people did not become refugees because of an earthquake or a natural disaster; this was a man-made disaster, an expulsion. So Israel must bear responsibility under international law. And then there is the compensation of the individuals and of the host countries as well. In addition, there is the issue of an international mechanism to ensure that there is a follow-up.

If you read the Israeli press or Israeli leaders' books or memoirs, the right of return appears to be anathema to them…

I cannot control what Israelis say. They said quite often that they would never negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), that they would not negotiate on Jerusalem, that they would never accept a Palestinian state. Look, I cannot force them to make peace. I cannot dictate to them. I [must be] to be the most disadvantaged negotiator in history. I have no army, no navy, no air force; my economy is very fragmented.

Having said that, what options does Israel have? Number one, a two-state solution along the 1967 borders, meaning a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. That is our option; that is how we are trying to achieve peace. If they do not want this option, there is a second option. I live in Jericho; that is on the River Jordan. You want Israel to stretch from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Let us talk. Let us be equal. Once I say this, they will look at me and say, "You Palestinians do not understand the issue of the state's Jewish character." I will say, Of course. Since 2003, those who are born in Muslim or Christian households between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River are the majority in this land. That is not a secret. So, the only option is the two-state solution on the 1967 borders.

Israelis must understand their interests. They cannot come to me after I have accepted them and recognized them and tell me, "For your state, we must have this bloc in Ma'aleh Adumim, this bloc in Gush Etzion, and this and that." I cannot negotiate with them on the basis of security, religion, psychology, etc. I negotiate with them in accordance with international law and other agreements.

If they do not want option number one, or option number two - because, with option number two, we will have to change the name of the Knesset to "Parliament" by voting together as one state - if they do not want either of these two options, they will have to opt for an apartheid regime - what they are doing in the West Bank, where there are roads that cannot be used by Palestinians. No one is immune to a disease like bigotry and racism. Once it gets under people's skin, one tends to justify it, sometimes through the economy, through psychology…. Now Israel is using security to justify this racism. What is going on in the West Bank now is an expression of racism and bigotry, and I do not think the world has the stomach for it, yet everyone just tends to close their eyes when it comes to it.

So these are the options: two states on the 1967 borders, a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, alongside an Israeli state. That is my choice, my preferred option. That is what I am trying to achieve peace with. Number two: one state. This is not my option, but if they insist, then in my town, Jericho, I would want to be a citizen with equal rights. I do not intend to disappear. I intend to stay. I am here, and I can tell them that Christian and Muslim Palestinians will not convert to Judaism and become Israelis, and neither will Jews convert to Christianity and Islam. Option number three is what they are doing now: the wall, settlements. This is the classic recipe for extremism, war, violence and counter-violence.

So does it appear that Israel is going for option number three at the moment?

This is not an option [for peace]. This is the option for extremism, bloodshed, violence and counter-violence.

To bring back the issue of refugees: What role is there for the international community on this topic?

There is a major role for the international community: to establish international mechanisms to handle all the details on how to solve the refugee problem, in all its aspects; compensation; responsibility; and also the host countries' compensation. There is a huge undertaking that needs to be further developed, so an international mechanism must be established to ensure its implementation and its monitoring.

Is this happening at this moment? Are international players being involved?

They are being involved, but there is not an international mechanism in place because the international community has not been given a role in negotiations.

And what about the refugees themselves? To what extent are they going to be involved in the shaping of their own futures and destinies?

What do you mean?

Let us say there is a negotiated agreement. Will there be a referendum for refugees?

There will be a referendum not for refugees, but for all Palestinians.

So all refugees will have a voice.

They will have a voice before the referendum.

In what way?

In many ways: the international mechanism, the individual right - they will have to make up their minds as to what they want to do; they will have to pursue their compensation directly with the international mechanism. So they will be involved in many ways even before the referendum.

Are you saying that the issue of refugees must be prioritized, or needs to be looked at before other issues?

Whether other people are thinking of it or not, it is still a right.

What are the realistic prospects for the fate of refugees?

It depends on whether Israel wants this or not. I cannot impose peace on Israel and, irrespective of our weaknesses, I find no other options for making peace. In order to make peace, they have to come to terms with what international law provides. There are various advantages in negotiations, but nobody has the power to force a country to sign an agreement, short of international legal provisions. Israel is using roadblocks, settlements, smear campaigns, anything to undermine negotiations. They want me to sign what Israel wants? These roadblocks, settlements are used to create pressure. I'm not going to make peace with Israel while it has a policy of exporting fear.

Are you concerned about the likely shape of the new Israeli government?

I do not choose for Israel. We respect democratic processes, but if an Israeli government is formed that does not accept the two-state solution in their program, and does not accept the signed agreements and continues the settlement policy, it will not be our partner and we cannot enter into negotiations with it. We have already asked that the European Union, Russia, the United States and the UN apply the same principles they have applied to our national unity government. For example, will the United States, which has asked us, asked our government, to accept the two-state solution - will they apply the same principles to the Israeli government, which has refused to accept the two-state solution? An agreement to stop the settlements? And their obligations emanating from past agreements? It is up to them, but I believe that if the United States, Europe, Russia and the UN apply double standards this time, they are putting a nail in the coffin in this region. And in our coffin as moderates.

So will this be the end of negotiations?

Well, our strategic option is peace. But this time, if you have an Israeli government that continues with the settlements and refuses to accept the two-state solution, negotiations cannot be an objective in and of themselves.

What is the place of the Palestinian citizens of Israel within the context of previous agreements and a two-state solution?

They are not on the agenda in the negotiations I participate in. I am only negotiating on the 1967 borders. Those people have lived in their homes; they have been there since before the emergence of the state of Israel and they will remain there. So we do not talk about it. They are full citizens there and no one, especially the Israelis, should dare to open the subject matter with us. We are negotiating on the terms of reference of the 1967 borders. So it is none of Israel's business and, if they raise the issue with us, it would be unacceptable.