Palestinian Asks U.S. Jews to Press Netanyahu on Peace

Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief peace negotiator, urged visiting American Jewish leaders on Sunday to help revive the stalled peace talks by passing a message on to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Send him this message on my behalf,” Erekat said in an impassioned speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Palestinian people are not your enemies, and they should not be portrayed as the enemy.”

Erekat also urged Netanyahu not to use Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his election campaign: “Stop insinuating to the Israelis that if you don’t vote Netanyahu you are voting Arafat.”

A moderate in the Palestinian leadership, Erekat said accusing the Palestinian people of not being committed to peace strengthens extremist elements in Palestinian society, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Please, Mr. Netanyahu, don’t shoot yourself in the foot and shoot us in the head,” he said. “You can say whatever you want to say about Arafat, about me as a chief negotiator. You can accuse us of anything you want. But don’t touch the Palestinian people.

“If you continue to portray the Palestinian people as the enemies,” he said, “this is [used as] the main ammunition of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

Erekat was warmly received by most members of the Conference of Presidents, which was in Israel on its annual leadership mission.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference’s executive vice chairman, said after the speech that the plea to American Jews was “a little bit of drama.”

“We are not intermediaries to the prime minister,” he said, adding that Erekat “presented the traditional position of the Palestinian Authority. He was very articulate.”

However, Hoenlein said Erekat failed to give specific answers to some concerns about Palestinian compliance with the Wye accords signed last October but frozen by the Israeli government.

Erekat insisted the Palestinians had carried out their commitments as agreed, and he accused Netanyahu of taking upon himself the role of judging whether the Palestinians had implemented the accords, which was supposed to be done by the United States.

Erekat tried to alleviate concerns of conference members about Palestinian incitement against Israelis, saying the Palestinian Authority is trying hard to explain to Palestinians the boundaries of free speech. For example, he said, the authority is telling its people that Palestinians who talk of killing Jews are practicing “racism, bigotry and incitement.”

But Erekat was ambiguous when asked whether Arafat plans to carry out his threat of unilaterally declaring statehood on May 4.

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