RAMALLAH, The West Bank — Other than unswerving loyalty to Mahmoud Abbas and a shared commitment to nonviolent resistance of the Israeli occupation, the top two advisers and potential successors to the 80-year-old Palestinian leader couldn’t be more different.
Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and longtime chief negotiator, is an erudite, Western-educated political animal as comfortable in English-language television studios and international symposia as he is glad-handling the constituents he represents in the Palestinian parliament from his hometown of Jericho.
Maj. Gen. Majid Faraj is the powerful head of Abbas’ Mukhabarat, or General Intelligence Service. Born in the Dehaishe refugee camp to – in his words – “a very basic family,” Faraj rose through the ranks as a soldier in the shadows, first in the Tanzim, the armed wing of the PLO and then in the Palestinian Authority’s Preventive Security Organization (PSO) formed in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Unlike Erekat, Faraj is not media-savvy. He doesn’t grant on-the-record interviews; this is a first, he says.
You’ll find no Wikipedia pages on the man who, by his account, “spent many years in Israeli jails like my brothers” before becoming a PSO commander of the Bethlehem district and then head of military intelligence.
Faraj's father was killed by Israeli forces in 2002, at the age of 62, in an operation triggered by a spate of suicide bombings throughout Israel. “He was shot in Bethlehem when he went to buy milk and bread,” Faraj recounted. “They thought he was carrying a bomb.”
The general neglected to mention that his father had violated a curfew at the time, or that he was felled by an Israeli heavy machine gun, making it almost impossible to wrap all the remains in a burial shroud.
Early last month, Erekat’s 37-year-old nephew Mazen Aribe, an officer under Faraj’s command, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers after he allegedly opened fire with his legally issued handgun at a checkpoint, wounding two.
The Dec. 3 event marked yet another setback for the nonviolent resistance project that Erekat, the high-profile politician and peace negotiator, and Faraj, the secretive, security strongman, have come to embody, each in his own way.
In conversations two weeks after Aribe’s death and four months into the latest wave of so-called lone wolf terror – during which 29 Israelis and nearly 160 Palestinian assailants or suspected perpetrators have met their deaths in stabbing, car ramming and occasional shooting attacks — both men shared a bleak prognosis of bloodshed to come.
For Erekat, the story of Aribe – his sister's son who made a career in containing violence through coordination with Israeli security arms before that fatal December day – marked a kind of personal failure.
He practically shakes as he ticks off latest year-end data from Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
“Sixty eight percent want Abu Mazen to resign,” says Erekat, using the nom de guerre of Abbas, the PA leader. “Sixty seven percent support use of knives; 66 percent are convinced that another armed intifada [uprising/shaking off] will serve national interests in ways that negotiations can not … With these numbers, we need an exit strategy. No other government was given the time, patience and opportunity to deliver progress through negotiations as I was. And I have nothing to show for it.”
His nephew’s story leaves Erekat feeling sucker-punched by the futility of his seemingly Sisyphean struggle, of reconciling the PA’s commitment to nonviolence with the militancy bubbling under the surface of Palestinian streets.
“If they don’t want to do what I’ve been asking them to do, I think I need to take a decision personally. But what worries me is that if I hold a press conference today and say, ‘It’s over,' I’d be shooting myself in the head," he said. "The 66 percent that wants armed resistance will become 99 percent.”
Adding insult to Erekat’s personal injury was the skewering he received in the Israeli media after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top cabinet ministers – apparently unaware of the family connection – flagged the official’s condolence call as an act of terrorist sympathy, further proof that the PA is actively inciting violence.
“I went to my sister’s home and I told her it’s my mistake. I failed. I was foiled … We killed his dream of a two-state solution. For 22 years, I’ve been telling my people not to use violence, only negotiation. To recognize Israel. And what did these people – my family – tell me in the condolences? They said: ‘Saeb, we love you. But there were 200,000 settlers when we began. Today we have 600,000 settlers. Washington doesn’t see us. Washington is not listening to us. They’re allowing Israel to be treated as above the laws of man.'”
For Faraj, the event was a chilling reminder that even promising young officers – however well-trained, disciplined and properly vetted – are a product of their environment; sons of the street. When that environment turns to despair; when the street burns with anger, even the best sons of what he calls “the Palestinian political project” can turn rogue.
Nevertheless, Faraj insists such events are still anomalies. The PA’s cardinal policy of “One Authority; One Gun” governing the 30,000-some US- and EU-funded security forces in the West Bank will not be undermined by individuals who choose to act against the group.
“There is a difference between individual acts and the group,” says Faraj. “In some cases, we may see individuals acting … Until today, we really are a stable institution. We will continue to do our work. But we really are at a crossroads. We see ourselves as powerless when the Israelis invade where we live … What can I tell my officers and the people we’re supposed to protect?”
He cited an event in November, when more than two dozen Israeli undercover operatives raided a Hebron hospital and killed an uninvolved relative who was visiting their wanted man, a 27-year-old Hamas militant who was shot during an attack on an Israeli settler. In the Nov. 12 event, as in nightly raids throughout the West Bank – including in Area A, the Oslo-designated section ostensibly under the full control of the PA – Israeli forces demand that Palestinian counterparts stand down while they perform their mission of arresting or killing designated targets, often in plain view of innocent bystanders.
“When our security forces are outside the hospital, and they are forced to withdraw, it is very bad for the Palestinian public,” Faraj says. “Any Israeli action with Palestinians creates serious problems for us; it’s really as if they are attacking the [PSO].”
Faraj notes that almost all of the Palestinian perpetrators of latest lone wolf attacks against Israelis are products of the post-Oslo generation, where more than 55 percent of the West Bank population is under the age of 30. “We’re a young society … We thought these people would have a different mentality – a mentality of peace,” he laments.
“The People in the West Bank, they’ve given us many years for our political project. They gave us the time to negotiate one state, one weapon. They supported us. But in this time, we in the security establishment witnessed three wars in Gaza, the continuation of Israeli crimes in the West Bank and almost daily Israeli invasions. There’s no hope for a political horizon ... We have no state, but rather a state of [Jewish] settlers,” says Faraj.
Netanyahu, it must be noted, ostensibly still professes support for a two-state solution, albeit not under current regional and local conditions, with violence at home and the Islamic State beyond its borders. But prominent members of his hardline, religious-nationalistic coalition government are adamant that it will never happen.
Both Faraj and Erekat – like US Secretary of State John Kerry and most leading voices in the Israeli opposition – insist there is no alternative to the two-state solution. They maintain that the PA is unsustainable under current conditions, and that Israel must do more to prevent its collapse.
“There are valid questions as to how long the PA will survive if the current situation continues. Mark my words,” Kerry told an audience of the Saban Forum early last month. “The chances that it will collapse increase every day.”
Avi Issacharoff*, an Arab affairs security analyst and co-creator of a popular local television series called Fowda – which means chaos in Arabic – said the PA may not collapse all at once, as per Kerry’s scenario.
Rather, it more likely will disintegrate every so gradually into fowda, into chaos.
It’s a process that has already begun, Issacharoff maintains; and the only thing keeping it together is loyalty of PA forces to Abbas and the ongoing security coordination with the Israel.
“It’s not a question of if, but when,” Issacharoff said of the demise of the PA. “If people think otherwise, it’s hallucinatory.
“It could happen the next time we see some crossfire between Israelis and the Palestinian police. Or the next time there’s an isolated incident – like that of Mazen Aribe – when a snap decision is made to attack Israelis. There are so many ways things can spiral downward to irreversible depths. I’m very pessimistic.”
According to Kerry, collapse of the PA won’t lead to a one-state solution between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Rather, warns America’s top diplomat, it will lead to war.
Similarly, Kerry insists that Abbas – “the number one person who is committed to nonviolence” – must be empowered to deal with internal as well as regionally generated external challenges.
“If Abu Mazen gets weaker, I believe that’s a danger for Israel … This is not an abstract issue that you can put off for some distant day,” said Kerry. “The fact is that current trends, including violence, settlement activity, demolitions are imperiling the viability of a two-state solution. And that trend has to be reversed in order to prevent this untenable one-state reality from taking hold.”
And while Kerry also insisted that Abbas and his top lieutenants must do more to end incitement, Erekat rebuts that the PA can no more halt the acts of West Bank lone wolves than Netanyahu can control isolated acts of Jewish terror or knife-wielding youth from East Jerusalem, where Israel controls not only security, but the content of school curricula.
When asked why Abbas and the PA have not acceded to Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state with the right to live in peace and security, Erekat’s soft-spoken words belie acute indignation.
“I have recognized the state of Israel’s right to exist along the 1967 lines on 78 percent of historic Palestine. I have recognized their right to [land] swaps, to a third party deployed on my territory to make sure we comply with agreements. But the Jewishness of the State of Israel is not my business.”
Erekat claims the Netanyahu government is trying to recast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious conflict; something he said is untrue today, but could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “This is a political conflict over borders, water, refugees and everyday life. It has nothing to do with god and religion. We Palestinians do not view Judaism as a threat; it’s one of god’s great religions,” he insists.
In a sardonic reference to the late Muammar Gaddafi, who renamed his country the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Erekat noted that Netanyahu could rename his country the Jewish State of Israel, if he so chooses.
“All the agreements I’ve signed are with the State of Israel, the official name registered with the United Nations. Now if Mr. Netanyahu wants to rename his country the biblical 5,766-year-old Jewish Kingdom of David or whatever, he can go register it as such. But don’t ask me to define your nature.”
Erekat believes the PA has, in essence, already been destroyed, along with the promise of a two-state solution.
“The only thing that will give me hope is if President Obama stands tall and moves to recognize the state of Palestine. Otherwise, you’re not recognizing me, you’re not allowing me to go to the UN Security Council; you’re not allowing me to go to the International Criminal Court, my money [US security assistance] you’re withholding. What the hell do you want from me?”
He warns that from the fall of the PA won’t spring Hamas, which Shikaki’s latest poll shows to be a clear victor over Abbas if presidential elections were to be held today. Rather, Erekat says the force that will sweep in to co-opt the anarchy and violence left in the wake of the PA’s demise will be Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
A high-ranking Israeli general officer who interacts regularly with both Erekat and Faraj says he is “well aware” of contemporary Palestinian arguments that if Israel can’t live with the PA, it will have to live with the Islamic State. “I understand their claim that the option to the PA is Daesh,” he said. “But firstly, I don’t see them collapsing so soon.”
“And secondly,” said the general officer, who declined to be quoted by name, “if there will be a vacuum, it won’t be filled immediately by Daesh. There is Hamas, Tanzim.”
Nevertheless, he conceded that “Eventually, god forbid, we must consider the threat of Daesh.”
Erekat dismisses the question of whether a return to negotiations without Abbas’ precondition for a settlement freeze could ease the sense of dejection among his people. It’s been more than five years since Abbas and Netanyahu met publicly for talks. Each failed round, he says, brings new depths of despair. Empty photo ops, he says, between the Palestinian Rais (head) and the Israeli premier would simply fan the flames of populist anger.
“Netanyahu is doing his best to weaken us; to make us look very bad in the eyes of our people; to ruin the social fabric of moderate Palestinians,” says Erekat. “What’s happening in the streets today is just the tip of the iceberg. Those Palestinians being questioned in public opinion polls are so angry, and very soon that anger will be directed at us. It’s coming.”
Faraj, too, warns that creeping religious extremism poses a clear and present danger, not only to the PA, but to Jordan and ultimately Israel. According to Faraj’s assessment, more than 90 percent of Palestinians reject the extremism of Daesh, al-Qaida and the Nusra Front; a rejection he attributes in large part to Abbas.
“Now the number of Palestinians supporting them is very marginal, and this is a success of Abu Mazen. He changed the culture,” Faraj says. “But if Daesh or other extremist groups decide to fight Israel, they will find sympathy in the Arab street.”
As the PA’s man responsible for interlocution with American, European, regional and global intelligence and security leaders, Faraj is closely tracking the spread of regional radicalization. “Daesh is on our border; they are here with their ideology; and they are looking to find a suitable platform to establish their base. Therefore, we must prevent a collapse here, because the alternative is anarchy, violence and terrorism,” he warns.
“We, together with our counterparts in the Israeli security establishment, with the Americans and others, are all trying to prevent that collapse. The experts all know that in case of collapse, everybody will get hurt ... They’re already in Iraq, Syria, Sinai, Lebanon and Jordan, but Ramallah, Amman and Tel Aviv must remain immune from them.”
Faraj, like Erekat, insists the PA is acting in its own interests and is not doing Israel any favors by its adherence to nonviolent resistance. “We are sure that violence, radicalization and terrorism will hurt us. It won’t bring us closer to achieving our dream of a Palestinian state,” says Faraj.
Aside from the immediate threat of Hamas and other extremist groups opposed to the PLO-controlled PA policies, Faraj views security coordination as a bridge that can sustain a decent atmosphere until the politicians go back to serious talks.
He insists that since October, PA intelligence and security forces have prevented 200 attacks against Israelis, confiscated weapons and arrested about 100 Palestinians – claims that were not rejected out of hand, but could not be confirmed by the Israeli military.
But unlike Erekat, who questions the continued benefit of security coordination and fears it is serving merely as a cover for continued occupation, Faraj is a self-described fighter.
“We fought for many decades in a different way; and now we are fighting for peace … So I will continue fighting to keep this bridge against radicalization and violence that should lead us to our independence,” Faraj says.
Just as long as he remains convinced it isn’t a bridge to nowhere.
* An earlier version of this article misspelled Avi Issacharoff's name.