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PLO envoy parries with Princeton audience
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PLO envoy parries with Princeton audience

Speaking at Princeton University, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s top man in Washington rejected calls that the PLO recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” and reiterated PLO policy declaring the right of the “State of Israel” to exist in peace and security.

“I have said repeatedly that we recognize Israel as the State of Israel — whatever it wants to call itself is their business,” Maen Rashid Areikat, who heads the PLO delegation in Washington, said in response to a student’s question.

Areikat spoke to a packed auditorium Oct. 7, in a talk sponsored by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Workshop on Arab Political Development, and Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice.

The topic of recognition came up during a question-and-answer period, and referred to repeated calls by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one as recently as Oct. 7 — for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Netanyahu has said that it is not enough that PLO recognize “Israel” or the “Israeli people.”

Noting that Palestinians are still under occupation and claiming that Palestinians in Israel are discriminated against, Areikat said, “You can’t ask me to compromise on the rights of the Arab Israeli minority in Israel and up front give up my right to discuss the issue of refugees.

“The issue of recognition of the Jewishness of the state is a tactic, a condition that Netanyahu is trying to impose, knowing that no Palestinian is going to accept it.”

During his prepared remarks, Areikat projected the calm of a negotiator, but during the Q-and-A that followed, his responses tended to be more emotional and revealing.

Asked what security concessions the Palestinian Authority would be willing to guarantee in negotiations with Israel, Areikat responded, “We are the only people on earth required to guarantee the security of an occupying power.”

But, he quickly added, the Palestinians have agreed to a nonmilitarized future state, with third-party forces stationed wherever Israel wants and for whatever duration it desires.

In assessing the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords — the announced topic of his remarks — Areikat lamented what he called their ambiguity, the deferral of major issues, the absence of a monitoring and verification mechanism, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Areikat claimed that the reason the Israelis and Palestinians are once again politically engaged is the Palestinians’ new non-member observer-state status at the UN.

With this new status, he said, the Palestinians can join any UN organization with a majority vote, which they have, including the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. This, he maintained, pushed the United States to initiate a political process, and the Palestinians agreed not to seek membership in any UN organization until the six-to-nine month period of negotiations is over.

Areikat praised Secretary of State John Kerry as resolute in his pursuit of peace. Now is the time to negotiate, Areikat said, because the international community is suffering fatigue regarding the issue of peace in the Middle East. The status quo is also forcing Israeli society to debate whether Israel can remain both Jewish and democratic, while the United States’ role as a regional power in the Middle East is diminishing.

He said the majority of Palestinians support a two-state solution. “There is strong opposition to resorting to a violent uprising against Israel anytime soon,” he said. However, “extremists on both sides thrive on lack of progress and lack of peace. The only way to weaken extremists is by making progress toward peace.”

Concluding the questioning, Areikat advised that Israel should be looking not toward the West but toward the East, where it lives. “The sooner that Israel decides to get integrated and live with its neighbors in peace and security, the better off it and the Palestinian people will be,” he said. In the future, he added, an Arab leadership may no longer exist that is willing to accommodate Israel.

“We signed the Oslo Accords that we would recognize Israel; we convened the Palestinian National Council and deleted all clauses that call for the destruction of the State of Israel. Isn’t it time for Israel to recognize the right of Palestinians to have their own state?” said Areikat. “We would like to see the end of conflict because I believe that we Palestinians are paying the heaviest price for the lack of peace.”

Some audience members were not swayed by his remarks.

Naomi Vilko, a Princeton psychiatrist and an advisory board member of Jerusalem U, an on-line Israel advocacy educational service, characterized this last statement and the speech itself as “basically repeating lies.”

“There was no historic Palestine,” she told NJJN. “[Yasser] Arafat made a very brilliant decision to fight the battle in the media and the UN and on the battlefield of public opinion. I feel that the Palestinians have presented their narrative, which has very little factual basis, and have gotten support, and it is a terrible situation for Israel.”

Maxine Elkins, a Princeton resident and wife of the Jewish Center’s rabbi emeritus, Dov Peretz Elkins, told NJJN she was frustrated by statements like Areikat’s suggestion that Arabs in Israel are being “harassed.”

“I see Arabs walking all over Jerusalem, wherever they want to walk, in their Muslim/Arab garb,” she said. “How fast would a Jew be massacred if he walked into [the Arab town of] Ramallah with a kipa on?”

Elkins said she was also uncomfortable with “half-truths” she heard, saying Areikat alluded to the security fence without mentioning that Israel built it as a protection from terrorist attacks.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the facts are the facts, and you can’t twist them into an opinion,” she said. “They send out slick speakers with a PhD so people look at him and think that whatever is going to come out of his mouth is going to be factual.”

Sam Ronel, a retired Israeli chemist now living in Princeton, told NJJN that a large segment of the Israeli public agrees on what would constitute a two-state solution. The sticking point, he suggested, is trust.

“If we make an agreement with the PLO today, we don’t know who in six months will be in charge,” he said. “They continue to be aggressive to Israel in their education and in the street, and it hurts. How can you make peace if they want to kill you?”

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