‘Let us out of the box’

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On Thursday, Palestinian chief negotiatior Saeb Erakat sat down for an hour and half “conversation” with former peace processor Aaron David Miller at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC. They spoke in a cozy theater on the sixth floor, a setting perfect for peace process theater. Erakat is a decent and intelligent man, who said wryly that negotiating with Israel is the only thing on his CV, he’s been involved in such things for twenty years. The same could be said of Miller. 

The conversation was not clarifying. Erakat expressed frustration in various ways, and must have used some variant of the phrase “in a box” , or “let us out of the box” a dozen times.

What are the Palestinians supposed to do while engaging in endless negotiations, or talks about having negotiations, which Israel drags out while it continues to gobble up the West Bank? Erakat floated two possibilities. The Palestinians could declare a state conforming to the ’67 boundaries, and ask the United Nations to recognize it. Aaron David Miller said immediately that the US would veto any such demarche at the UN—because “we believe in negotiations.” It seemed to an absurdist answer, but no one laughed.

Secondly, Erakat floated the possibility of the PA dissolving itself, and forcing Israel to carry out its duties as an occupier. He recognizes that the PA has become a shell. “I’m supposed to be a servant for the occupation” he said mordantly. But I wonder if the threat of dissolution isn’t an empty one. I haven’t found firm and up to date statistics on what part of the Palestinian economy comes from foreign aid, channeled through the PA. But it must be huge. Here the CIA Factbook says $1 billion since 2007. Plus there are lot of internationally-funded projects that don’t go through the PA, but depend on it to some degree. The fact is that occupied West Bank has no real economy separate from international aid. Most of its middle class depends in some way, to foreign assistance. I’m being impressionistic, and welcome corrections. But that means a large number of West Bank Palestinians who have middle class jobs, opportunities to secure higher education for their children, etc. have considerable stake in the status quo not getting worse. They are sort of a nomenklatura—a phrase I use without condemnation.

There was a little time for questions, but not many were taken. I wanted to ask Erakat whether it would be helpful, even towards a two state solution, if the Palestinians began a civil agitation for the right to vote. I wanted to ask him about negotiations with Hamas (which unlike the PA is able to maintain itself without massive infusions of foreign aid). I wanted to ask him how he viewed Israel efforts to sever the West Bank from Gaza, thus making the Palestinians easier to manage. But no such luck. It was a kind of dispiriting forum, but the situation is dispiriting. The Woodrow Wilson Center plans to post it here.

Update: This post initially went up with Weiss’s byline. Apologies.

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