Maen Rashid Areikat, the PLO representative to Washington, told The Cable today that stories claiming he called for a Palestinian state free of Jews are a "fabrication."
The Daily Caller was the first to report Areikat's remarks, made at a Wednesday breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Areikat was responding to a question by Daily Caller reporter Jamie Weinstein, who asked whether he imagined that Jews could have a political role in a future Palestinian state.
"Well, you know, I personally still believe as a first step we need to be totally separated and we can contemplate these issues in the future. But after the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict of friction, I think it would be in the best interests of the two peoples to be separated first," Areikat said, according to a recording of the session provided to The Cable.
The Daily Caller headlined the story, "Palestinian ambassador reiterates call for a Jew-free Palestinian state," and a similar story in USA Today was entitled, "PLO ambassador says Palestinian state should be free of Jews." The comments also evoked condemnations from top Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who accused the Palestinian Authority of adopting a Judenrein policy, referring to the Nazi drive to cleanse Germany of any Jews.
"It's not a misquotation or out of context, it's a total fabrication," Areikat said in an interview today. "I never mentioned the word ‘Jews,' I never said that Palestine has to be free of Jews."
Areikat said that he stands by his call for "separation," but that he intended to refer to the separation of the Israel and Palestinian peoples, not the members of the two religions. Areikat also said that the idea of "separation" is an Israeli idea and that Israeli officials including Defense Minister Ehud Barak have endorsed it.
"Israeli people includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Druze... When I say the Israeli people, I mean everybody. This is not a religious conflict, this is not against Jews. We want to be a secular state," Areikat said.
"This was a total set-up," Areikat said, adding that Weinstein followed him to his car after the breakfast meeting. "He followed me to my car and asked me if I would allow homosexuals to live in Palestine. I didn't know he was trying to implicate me. It was all premeditated."
Actually, it was the Weekly Standard's John McCormack who asked Areikat the question about homosexuals. Areikat responded that "this is an issue that's beyond my [authority]," McCormack reported.
This is the second time in as many years that Areikat has been mired in controversy related to the future status of Jews in a Palestinian state. In an October 2010 interview with Tablet Magazine, he said, "We need to separate. We have to separate.... I'm not saying to transfer every Jew, I'm saying transfer Jews who, after an agreement with Israel, fall under the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state."
The war of words comes only days before Areikat, Netanyahu, and hundreds of other world leaders will converge on New York for the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, where a top issue will be the PLO's plan to seek member-state status by appealing to the U.N. Security Council.
State Department Acting Special Envoy David Hale and the National Security Council's Dennis Ross are in the West Bank this week, meeting with top Palestinian officials in a last-ditch attempt to convince the Palestinians not to go through with their plan.
Areikat said the action at the United Nations would probably fall on Sept. 20, and the Obama administration was unlikely to dissuade the Palestinians from moving forward.
"There is a sense of urgency on the part of the administration," said Areikat. "They understand the implications. But unless they really offer something tangible it will be like the [unsuccessful] last visit that [Hale and Ross] had last week."
Here is the full exchange between Weinstein and Areikat:
JW: What kind of state do you perceive the independent Palestinians to be? For instance, do you imagine that in an independent Palestinian state, a Jew could be elected mayor of Ramallah?
MA: I haven't seen the draft resolution but I can assure you the resolution will be calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. And it will definitely include also that it will live side by side in peace and security with Israel...
JW: To my point, do you foresee in an independent Palestinian state, for instance, a member of the Jewish minority there, if they existed, being elected mayor of Ramallah?
MA: Well, you know, I personally still believe as a first step we need to be totally separated and we can contemplate these issues in the future. But after the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict of friction, I think it would be in the best interests of the two peoples to be separated first.
Listen to the tape for yourself here:
UPDATE: Weinstein wrote into The Cable to respond to Areikat's charge that Weinstein followed him to his car:
I followed him to his car not to trap the ambassador, but to give him an opportunity to clarify his comments. I asked two times while at his car whether 'Jews,' not Israelis, would be allowed in the West Bank or Gaza in a future Palestinian state and he said two times that they had to be separated. To frame it like I was trying to trap him is absurd. It was just the opposite. I was giving him the opportunity to clarify his comments. I only found out later that he had said the same thing before in an interview with Tablet magazine.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.