A Conversation with Maen Rashid Areikat, Chief Representative of the PLO to the United States
As he tells it, two forces – “the influence of my father and the influence of the occupation” – propelled Maen Areikat into a career in politics that would lead him from his boyhood hometown of Jericho located in the West Bank to the power corridors of Washington, D.C. where he serves as the Chief Representative to the U.S. for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
“I’ve been involved in politics for a long time. I believe I owe it to my late father who was very active since the 1950’s in different political activities, and then after the Israeli military occupation of 1967, he was a very prominent figure in the West Bank calling for political resistance and the cessation of the Israeli military occupation,” Areikat declared. “So I grew up living in a home where my father was very politically active; very politically respected by people around him who always came to seek his advice, and I witnessed with my own eyes the harassment and the hardships that my father had to endure as a result of his political views.”
According to Areikat, in addition to arresting his father many times, the Israelis banned his leaving the country from 1967-1972 due to his political activities, including prohibiting him from attending his oldest daughter’s wedding in Amman, Jordan, in 1970. While Areikat considers witnessing what happened to his father a “private” aspect of the influences that shaped him, it is clear that the daily reality of living as a Palestinian in a territory under the control of the Israelis dramatically influenced him as well.
Areikat, who became politically active in school and was eventually, like his father, arrested and temporarily banned from travel by the Israelis, explained, “I grew up in a highly political environment…you have the general aspect that we were under occupation; a people who were denied their freedom, oppressed by a strong military occupier; a government authority that had the intention of breaking the will of the Palestinian people to have them give in, give up and accept the facts on the grounds and the realities that the occupation was trying to impose.”
These influences crystallized Areikat’s political beliefs and steered him onto a path that led to his working closely with leading Palestinian political figures. Areikat earned his Bachelor of Science degree in finance at Arizona State University and continued his political activism there by serving as president of the General Union of Palestine Students. He received a MBA in management from Western International University and eventually returned home in June 1992 after an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team encouraged him to do so explaining that Palestinians with the skills and qualifications he possessed were needed back home as they worked to advance their cause through political, non-violent means.
Areikat would spend the next five years working at the Orient House in Jerusalem which served as the official headquarters of Faisal Husseini, the head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference, and the Palestinian negotiating team. Areikat shared, “I think if you asked me which figures impacted me and influenced me later after I became heavily involved, I have to mention the late Faisal Husseini. I learned a lot from him, and I had the honor and the privilege to be around him for five years.”
When he left the Orient House in 1998, he moved to the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department which was headed then by current President Mahmoud Abbas, also known Abu Mazen, who Areikat cites as also having “a very significant influence on me.”
Noting parallels between Husseini and Abbas, Areikat said, “Both encouraged talented younger leaders to be involved. Both gave us the room and the freedom to maneuver and to express our views. They very much respected our opinions and encouraged us to get involved and that really helped to shape up my versatility from 1993 to 2003 because I worked five years with Faisal Husseini, and I worked five years with President Abbas when he was the head of the negotiating affairs department before he became prime minister in 2003. So these two Palestinian national figures have had a very important impact on me during that period.”
Areikat served for 11 years at the Negotiations Affairs Department in Ramallah, most recently as the Deputy Head and Coordinator-General from 2008 to 2009. Prior to that, he served as its Director-General which meant that in addition to overseeing the department’s day-to-day operations, he was responsible for overseeing the work of the Negotiations Support Unit which provides legal, policy, communication and technical support to Palestinian negotiators.
In 2009, Palestinian Authority President Abbas appointed Areikat to his current post as the PLO’s Chief Representative to the United States. One key objective Areikat identified is to improve the relationship between the Palestinians and the American people at large who he describes as “very intelligent.” As to more official channels, he considers the relationship with the Obama Administration to be a very good one explaining, “They treat us respectfully; they treat us well, and they have since I arrived here. They have taken different steps to make our work easier—we agreed with them to change the name and to raise the (Palestinian) flag.”
The relationship with Congress is admittedly another matter. “It’s not a secret that we struggle to improve our relationship with Congress, and it’s not a secret that Members of Congress, instead of being evenhanded and impartial and listening to the views of all the parties; they only listen to the Israeli viewpoint and do not listen enough to the Palestinian viewpoint,” insisted Areikat.
In fact, he sees little daylight between most Members of Congress and AIPAC, an influential pro-Israel lobby organization and this worries him, “This is going to be very damaging not only to the prospects of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, but also damaging to the interests of the United States. If the Representatives of the American people don’t listen to Palestinians, who are fundamental, vital, crucial players to the conflict, I don’t think they will be able to develop the right judgment about the conflict. And basically whatever assessment that they reach will be slanted and not complete.”
Areikat indisputably considers the influence of Israel to be a substantial hurdle as he strives to “present the Palestinian viewpoint to the American public, the American government and to all the active players in Washington DC, and to improve the relationship between the United States and the Palestinian people at the official and the public level.”
Leaning forward in his chair and emphasizing certain points with hand gestures, the passion he possesses for his job of representing the Palestinian people comes through most visibly when discussing the establishment of a Palestinian state and what this development would mean for the future of the region. And on this point as one might suspect, there is little in the way of diplomatic ambiguity. According to Areikat, “Without the creation of a fully sovereign, contiguous, viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital and a just resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem, there will be no peace in the Middle East, period.”
While his professional responsibilities have placed him at the center of this epic intractable conflict, he keeps perspective through his family. The father of three active sons, he said, “The work we’re in can consume you, and it can be difficult to have a normal life. I try very much to devote time to my family, to my kids; to spend time with them. You only live once, and I want to enjoy that period of their life—this is an important thing for me.”
Areikat on the Issues
Areikat on Pursuing Palestinian Statehood at the UN:
A Palestinian state should be the agreed to outcome. But the Israelis don’t want that. Israel wants to dictate the facts on the ground that they impose on a daily basis through the settlements, the wall and everything else that they’re doing in Palestine is aimed at preempting and undermining the creation of a Palestinian state. We are entitled to explore all the venues that are available to us. I think the Palestinians are entitled to resort to all political, nonviolent means to achieve their objectives.
Areikat on the Advantages of Social Media:
For us being the underdogs, we suffer in the United States from the biased coverage of the Palestinian people and their struggle. This social media is making it easier for the ordinary American to know the facts immediately about what is going on the Middle East. So of course for the Palestinians, who have suffered for a long time from what I call unfair coverage in this country, we are very much pleased that this is becoming the big thing with everyone having access to get information; to get the truth directly.
Areikat on the Right of Return:
This is a very emotional issue, and Israel cannot escape responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem and cannot completely ignore this issue which is the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you want to put an end to the conflict, you have to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem. But at the same time, we are also pragmatic and reasonable when you talk about 6.5 million refugees; we need to find ways to absorb them in our state. But there has to be an implementation of the right of return. Our task in the PLO is to maximize the choices available to Palestinian refugees and to create a homeland for them to come back to; to be able to have their own passports, their own identity; to call a place home and end their exile and suffering. Without finding an acceptable solution for the Palestinian refugee problem, I don’t think any Palestinian leadership will sign a peace agreement with Israel.
Areikat on Israel and the Palestinian State:
It was a mistake in 1993 that we recognized Israel and Israel recognized the PLO; it should have been Israel and Palestine. We should have insisted then the outcome be based on 1967 borders. We should not have given Israel recognition in return for recognizing the PLO. Now, Israelis are saying they want the Palestinian state. They want a state where the air space is controlled by Israel, electricity is controlled by Israel, and international crossings are controlled by Israel. They want to keep a military presence in our future state. They want to have the right to continue to exploit our water resources. What kind of a state is that? All these are attributes of sovereignty and what’s the sense of having a state without them. We have recognized Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign, secure state under pre-1967 borders. They haven’t done so. And the onus is on Israel now to recognize the Palestinian state; not the other way around, with their tactics of saying the Palestinians should recognize Israel as the home of the Jewish people.
Areikat on the Renewing Negotiations with Israel:
I think Israel needs to do more than political maneuvers and tactics to prove to the Palestinians and the international community that they are serious. Israel’s real policy is very obvious—continuing to impose facts on the ground to undermine the creation of a Palestinian state, to prolong their military occupation and to maintain the status quo. They are not interested in sitting down with the Palestinians to end the conflict; otherwise, they would have engaged us.
Areikat on President Obama’s Initial Conditioning Peace Talks on Settlement Freeze:
I don’t agree with the apologists who defend the Israeli position by saying that the President made a big mistake. The President took a principled position. I think he should’ve kept his position on this issue and not change course. I think he should’ve become more decisive and firm with his demands, and he should have told the Israelis clearly ‘continuing with this course of action will have negative repercussions on your relationship with the United States.’ It was President Obama who said that the establishment of a Palestinian state and ending the conflict is in the U.S. national security interest. The malfunction in the policy is that once push came to shove, they didn’t put enough leverage on Israel to make them stick to what the U.S. was demanding of them.