Shalom, Saeb Erekat here
Without checkpoints, without sirens, and in a different time zone. Welcome to Ramallah, PA's Tel Aviv. From here, via short clips and large posters, Palestinian leaders try to convince Israeli public there is a partner for peace. Behind-the-scenes visit to Mideast's most optimistic campaign
In the hottest week of the year, the hottest in a 100 years, Ramallah is on winter time. The second you cross the Qalandiya checkpoint, you have to move your clock back an hour. "It's 42.5 degrees (about 108 degrees Fahrenheit) outside right now," the taxi driver Abu Issa proudly declares, "It's never been this hot here before." So why the winter time? "Because of Ramadan," he explains, 'There are prayers at 4 am, it's hard to get up when it's dark."
Inside the cab is not much better. The air conditioner only seems to be partially working: It's making noise and letting out air. Hot air. Ramallah is sizzling, but despite Ramadan, people are walking around in the streets. Some businesses are open, even those that sell or serve food. And at night, they say it's merry at night here.
If in Israel they speak of the real estate bubble, Ramallah is simply real estate. New buildings in every neighborhood, in every corner. Cranes found at every vacant lot. The stones used are Jerusalem stones, and the glass – tinted high-tech glass. A year ago, a three-bedroom apartment in a good area would cost $90,000. Today, such an apartment would go for $130,000. The construction of a new hotel, a Movenpick branch, is currently being concluded in the city. Not far from us is a prestigious café, called Nova, which is designed in pure white, Rothschild Boulevard-style. Very few security officers are deployed through the city. Zero patrol cars, zero sirens, peace and quiet that one can envy. The main difference between Ramallah and Jerusalem, for example, is the absence of fast food chains. You won't find a McDonald's branch here.
Dome of the Rock remains
To get to Ramallah I left my house and took a taxi. We entered Qalandiya via Route 443, where I met with the Geneva Initiative people, and from there, straight into the Tel Aviv of the Palestinian Authority. For a whole day I ran around between various government buildings. I went in and out of three PA officials' offices in three different parts of the city. At the end of the day I took a cab and went back to my house in the Sharon, a 55-minute drive away.
All this without being stopped once. Not at the entrance to Ramallah, and not on the way out. I also wasn’t' stopped at the entrance to buildings in the city, or government offices. No one asked who I was, no one asked me for any ID. No one searched me. Hod Hashron – Ramallah, without any trouble. Just get in a car and hit the road. If I wanted to, I could have taken a weapon with me and kidnapped any one of the officials I met with. If they wanted to, any passerby could have crammed me into the trunk of a car and gotten rid of me forever. Even now, a week after my return, it's hard for me to conceive the ease of the trip there. Either peace has arrived but somebody simply forgot to tell us, or our whole affair with them is so tangled, that it can only be changed with the random thrust of a sword. If I had to place a bet, I'd choose the second option.
I arrived in Ramallah on invitation by the Geneva Initiative activists. They have come to shoot a new campaign with Palestinian Authority officials. Using short clips and large posters, the Palestinian leaders will try to convince us, the Israeli public, that the ball is in our court. The campaign was launched on Sunday, first on the internet, and in the coming days also in ads in newspapers and on billboards. In the lead roles: Jibril Rajoub, Saeb Erekat, Yasser Abed Rabbo and more. The target audience: The Israelis. The message: "We are partners for peace. What about you?" The funding, by the way, totaling millions of shekels, is mainly American.
Gadi Baltiansky, director-general of the Geneva Initiative's Israel headquarters, and director Ron Asulin are in charge of filming. The choice of locations is exhausting. The PA officials' offices are scattered, it seems, randomly around the city. Saeb Erekat's office, for example is located in a building with a sign that says, "The authority for the advancement of women's status", but on the first floor we actually found a furniture store and a printing press.
Jibril Rajoub's bureau is situated in the Palestinian Football Federation's building, where he serves as the federation's chairman in addition to his role in Fatah. The reason for this chaos, my hosts explain, is the Palestinian dissatisfaction with viewing Ramallah as the PA's capital. "Right now we don't have a choice," one of them explains. "When we establish a state, we will build the most beautiful government institutions in Jerusalem."
In Erekat's office, the camera crew members hold a long debate over whether he should be filmed near his desk or in the seating area. The seating area is boring, but beyond his desk hangs a large poster of the Dome of the Rock, alongside pictures of Yasser Arafat and President Mahmoud Abbas with a Palestinian flag in front of them. Erekat's assistants are asked to remove the flag. After brief negotiations, a compromise is reached: The Dome of the Rock and the flag stay, and the printer that was hiding in the corner ruining the shot goes. One of the Israelis on the crew mumbled that this is how the actual peace negotiations must be. "They talk and talk, and in the end come up with miserable achievements like a printer."
Asulin asks Erekat to open with the word "Shalom" in Hebrew. "It would be effective," he explains in English. And, action. Erekat speaks in a reconciling tone, and immediately admits that he know the Palestinian leadership has let us, the Israelis, down, over the past 20 years. "But I know it is still possible," he says. "Let's save Palestinian and Israeli lives." The crew members are pleased. "That was perfect," Asulin declares. "I believed you, bring a treaty and I'll sign it on the spot."
With Jibril Rajoub, on the other hand, Asulin had to work hard to get the word "partner" out of him. Rajoub would rather first declare that all settlers are insane and that the Jews should be ashamed to have Baruch Marzel among their people. Two minutes earlier, he was joking with his guests saying, "How many people did you bring? This really is occupation" and, "Why so many pictures, is this going on Facebook?". But during the shots he was aggressive and defiant, more threatening than required. Later, I ask Gadi if he's concerned that Rajoub's clip may bring about the opposite reaction to what they are hoping for. "That's Rajoub," he apologizes, "After all he's a former terrorist who spent 17 years in prison. But I know he is committed to this."
I ask him what the purpose of the campaign is. "The perception in the Israeli public is that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side," Gadi responds. "We all want peace, but don't believe there is anyone to talk to. We are trying to change this perception, to explain that there is a partner, and that the problem is actually with us."
And what about a campaign on the Palestinian street?
"We are carrying out a campaign of leaders, the Palestinian leadership. With the message of two states for two peoples. We are arguing that it's important to reach a permanent settlement, urgently. We did not take Israeli leaders because the parallel layer of Israeli leaders doesn't feel this way. Most of the Israeli leaders even object to negotiations. This is not the case with the Palestinians. With the exception of Hamas, they are all speaking in the same voice."
How do you think the campaign will be received by the public in Israel? Do you really think Rajoub, with his problematic past and aggressive tone, will convince us that there is a partner?
"Look, you don't have to love them, but their messages are credible. We are not trying to whitewash. Our goal is that the Israeli public address the matter at hand. It doesn't have to identify with or love the Palestinians. We got used to calling an abnormal life normal. I want to shake the indifference off of us."
'Let me make threats too'
Our last stop is the office of Yasser Abed Rabbo, who turns out to be a pleasant man with a great sense of humor. Filming starts and Abed Rabbo waves his finger at the camera. Asulin, the director, stops the cameras and says, "When you wave your finger, you are actually warning me. You are making threats." Abed Rabbo is not confused. "What do you care? Let me threaten you for once instead of you threatening us." Meanwhile, his cellular phone rings. His wife is on the line. "I can't talk now," he says, "I am surrounded by 12 Israelis. "But some of them are Arabs," someone says. Abed Rabbo retorts sarcastically, "Those are even worse."
On the way back, the driver, Abu Issa, decides to take us through an alternate road. "There is a big mess at the checkpoint now, two-kilometer-long traffic. But I know another way, we will go from there in a second." Abu Issa is an Israeli-Arab, who lives in east Jerusalem. When Abed Rabbo said earlier "those are even worse," he was talking about Abu Issa and his kind. On the western outskirts of Ramallah, we pass by luxurious neighborhoods of villas. "Look at this," Abu Issa says. "Look how they live. I don't understand what they want. They should first take care of the poor, like me, who live in a house that you wouldn't even let goats into. Then they should deal with you."
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