Israel accused of apartheid
Ramallah - Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat charges that Israel has become an "apartheid regime" worse than during South Africa's darkest hours and is doing its utmost to sabotage any two-state peace.
Erakat said in an interview that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing-led government had the choice: "Settlements or peace, and he has chosen settlements and settlers."
Under Netanyahu, he added, Israel's occupation of the West Bank has "developed into an apartheid regime worse than that of South Africa".
"Never in the darkest hours of South African apartheid were the blacks prevented (from using) roads that whites were using," the veteran negotiator said, referring to Israel's separatist security measures for Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territory.
"If the occupation continues, there will be villages, towns in the West Bank, and refugee camps that will be within walls that nobody can use," said Erakat, warning of more bloodshed and extremism as a result.
As new Israeli military orders came into effect on Tuesday, with the potential to expel many West Bank residents, Erakat said in a separate statement Palestinians would be turned into "criminals in their own homes".
The orders define an "infiltrator" in a way that could describe anyone in the West Bank who "does not hold a permit". The vast majority of Palestinians have never been required to hold an Israeli permit to reside in the West Bank.
Such threats, Erakat said, are "destroying the two-state solution which is ... the only sane option".
Washington and its Middle East diplomatic Quartet partners, the EU, Russia and the UN, are pushing for a viable Palestinian state to be established alongside a secure Israel under a peace deal.
"America is exerting every possible effort in order to maintain the two-state solution," said Erakat.
Washington is also making "every possible effort to begin the 'proximity talks'", he added, referring to indirect peace negotiations stymied by Israel's settlement policies in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
"We support them in this and we hope they succeed. And the Israeli government is doing its best to sabotage this," said Erakat.
On a more upbeat note, Erakat said the Palestinian position was being strengthened - at least on the international front - by Israel's hard-line policies.
"Palestinians have never been in a better position than they are now. I have never seen the international community fed up with the Israeli practices and Israeli behaviour that I am seeing now," he said.
Erakat said this had to be translated into action with international recognition of Palestinian statehood even without any unilateral declaration by the Palestinian side despite its institution-building efforts.
"What we want to do is institution-building with the help of France, the US, Britain, Japan and other countries," he said.
"We want the state's independence declared by you, not us. We don't want to have a unilateral declaration of independence. If you want to preserve the two-state solution, (recognition is) the logical thing to do," he said.
Erakat said the Israeli government was failing to recognise that the United States now more than ever needed the support of Muslim countries despite its strategic alliance with the Jewish state.
"The US is a nation today with 200 000 kids in two Muslim countries," he said, referring to its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Their political borders are no longer with Canada, Mexico and the two oceans. Their borders are with Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, Pakistan, the Gulf, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia."
Erakat, who famously sported a keffiyeh, the black-and-white scarf, as a Palestinian delegation member at the 1991 Madrid international peace conference, had a reflective look back at his two-decade career.
"I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in history: I have no army, I have no navy, no air force, no economy, but I am here to stay. I don't have anywhere else to go," he said.