Biden and Erekat each reflect in their own way one of Peres’s most significant personal and political traits: the belief that a person can shape his or her own tomorrow.
THEN-US vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat upon Biden’s arrival in Ramallah in 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The joy of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory and the sadness after the death of Dr. Saeb Erekat are not only a question of emotions; there are lessons to be learned. Biden’s victory symbolizes the necessity of hope in advancing a political and diplomatic agenda, while Erekat’s death reminds us of the urgency in doing so, which is no less important.
I had the honor of getting to know both Biden and Erekat due to their close ties with president Shimon Peres, with whom I worked for many years as a political adviser. Biden and Erekat each reflect in their own way one of Peres’s most significant personal and political traits: the belief that a person can shape his or her own tomorrow, the belief that the positive element in the human psyche can be the dominant element, and the belief that there is no fundamental difference between people who share a concrete commitment to dialogue and to being a partner for peace.
Biden will replace a president who represents the exact opposite of this outlook (which is portrayed as naïve). President Donald Trump is cynical, mocks the truth and is devoid of analytical ability and judgment. He is a friend and admirer of dictators. For Trump, the international arena is a field of competition, not a space for shared interests. Biden will work to restore the status of international institutions, of values and of human brotherhood.
For decades, Erekat worked against the prevailing Palestinian sentiment that there was no Israeli partner for peace now or in the future. He suffered severe criticism and was accused of collaborating with the Israelis. But his belief in a future of compromise and peace with Israel grew out of an optimistic perception that the future can be better and that human beings can make this reality.
Biden’s election should teach us not to despair even if populist nationalists appear to have a tight grip on power and sizeable support. Many Israelis have lost hope that a peace settlement with the Palestinians can be achieved. Many have lost hope because they are convinced there is no partner on the Palestinian side or that there is little public appetite on the Israeli side. Biden’s victory proves that anything is possible but that what we need is determination and leadership.
Erekat’s death shows that we do not have the luxury of waiting until the time is ripe on our side or the Palestinian side. If we wait for a political change here or there, or for the Biden administration to take office, to secure congressional approval of nominations in key positions and only after to formulate a strategy, we may no longer have Palestinian leaders like we did with Erekat and now have with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) – leaders who believe in peace, in a two-state solution and who do not think it is possible to achieve a Palestinian state through violence.
IF WE WAIT too long, we may find that instead of negotiating partners we will be left with fanatical extremist supporters of terrorism, or those who despair of a two-state solution and believe that over time a binational state will translate a demographic majority into internationally-supported sovereignty.
Contrary to popular belief, we have plenty of cards in our favor to promote a two-state solution with the support of the US government. We have a supportive region which – despite the attempt to spin the Abraham Accords as if the Palestinian cause is no longer relevant – still sees two states as the preferred and only solution. The Arab Peace Initiative remains on the table, even if normalization with some countries began before reaching an agreement. There is a high probability that these countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, will demand from Washington that the vision of the Arab Peace Initiative is implemented as a part of this welcome normalization.
If Shimon Peres were alive today, he would be talking to his friend President-elect Biden, and reminding him how no one believed that his vision of a new Middle East could come true, yet here it is, coming true gradually before our eyes. But if we do not advance towards an agreement with the Palestinians, this new Middle East will explode in our face. The death of the ultimate diplomat Erekat must remind us that hope is not enough, there must also be a sense of urgency.
In his gripping and illuminating book Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East, Avi Gil, Peres’s close adviser, quotes a statement by Peres that perfectly reflects the humane philosophy that guided him: “I don’t consider myself an expert in Arabs, but I understand people, and the Arabs are people like everyone else.”
A humanist like Biden, unlike his bigoted predecessor, understands this, and so we have a great opportunity ahead of us. But there is not much time, and as Peres once said, “History is like a galloping horse, if you don’t jump upon it, you will be left behind”.
Former diplomat Nadav Tamir is an adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. He is a member of the board of directors of Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy and the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. Nadav served as the political adviser to president Peres, served at the Washington Embassy and as consul general for the New England states in Boston.