Replacing Erekat will be no easy task - analysis

Palestinian experts say finding new top negotiator can wait until the Biden Administration’s policies become clear

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat speaks during a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 2, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat speaks during a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 2, 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The death of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat on Tuesday leaves a huge gap in the Palestinian leadership team, at a time when the prospect of a new administration in Washington has revived hopes of renewed talks after three years of diplomatic impasse.

Experts say Erekat played a delicate and critical role for years and that replacing him is not going to be easy, given his expertise and academic background.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in political science from San Francisco State University, and a doctorate in peace and conflict studies from the University of Bradford in England.

Bashar Azzeh, a leading analyst and a member of the National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told The Media Line the gap left by Erekat’s exit will not be easily filled, given his “dedication, commitment, experience and in-depth knowledge of all agreements” signed over the years.

“Despite the difficulty of anybody filling his place, there are many Palestinians with expertise and capacities, as well as knowledge, intelligence, background and education to lead such a dossier,” Azzeh continued.

He added, however, that “Erekat was a technical expert and a politician and leader at the same time.”

Azzeh said the critical issue was not who would lead the negotiations, but rather the nature of the peace process. “Where are we in terms of the two-state solution? Where are we in general? What’s the character of the peace talks?” he asked.

Erekat, the secretary-general of the PLO and an adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, led the Palestinians in on-off peace talks with Israel for many years. He helped to negotiate the Oslo Accords in 1993, which resulted in the creation of the Palestinian Authority and gave Palestinians limited self-governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the first time.

Attorney Mohammed Hadya, director-general of ACT for Alternative Dispute Resolution in East Jerusalem, told The Media Line Erekat led the negotiations dossier as a member of the executive committee of the PLO, and that Abbas had managed that file in the past, before Erekat.

“Therefore, if the criterion remains within the previous historical criteria, whoever is going to lead the negotiation file must be a member of the PLO’s executive committee,” Hadya said. 

Well-known members of the PLO Executive Committee elected in 2018 include Azzam al-Ahmad of Fatah and independents Ziad Abu Amr, Hanan Ashrawi and Adnan Al Husseini.

Many senior officials Palestinian affirmed that the negotiations portfolio was a very sensitive post entailing huge responsibility and that therefore, not many candidates were competing for it. Abbas would have the final say.

Hadya stressed that the negotiations post was a purely political portfolio, which required political experience at the senior level. “But it’s important to know that not all negotiation files were managed by Erekat. For instance, the security file is run by [Maj. Gen.] Majed Faraj, [head of the General Intelligence Service], who’s been working on it for years.”

He explained the Erekat was mainly responsible for the political aspects, while monitoring the others through a team. “I believe that if there is no consensus within the PLO on one person to manage the negotiations file, the work can be carried out by a committee of experts with a supreme political reference,” Hadya said.

Additionally, Hadya pointed out that PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh participated in managing the negotiations in previous years. “I don’t think that at this stage we need to speak about specific names, as this matter is governed by the reference, which is the PLO and those who previously managed this file.”

He elaborated that throughout the years there were technical committees working on specific files related to issues such as the refugees, borders and settlements, as well as Jerusalem and security. “So if the negotiations are resumed, I believe that the Palestinian negotiation team is ready to return to the table at a technical level, not only at the political level.”

The cutoff of ties with Israel and the US had to do with the positions of the Trump Administration, Hadya said. “The freeze in the Palestinian-American relations came because the US was completely biased in favor of Israel, where they took more than one step and decision that issued a blow to the two-state solution.”

Nour Odeh, a political analyst and public diplomacy consultant who was the PA government’s first female spokesperson, explained to The Media Line that Palestinians needed to be realistic in their expectations of the new American administration.

“I don’t think anyone is unrealistic enough to believe that the Israeli side is ready to negotiate; the program of the current Israeli government is to annex the West Bank. Therefore the matter of the negotiations file is not urgent,” Odeh explained.

Restoring relations with the American administration will come gradually, as huge damage was caused by the previous administration and had to be overcome, she said. “We need time to fix that damage, and in order to see the vision of the new administration and how it will deal with [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu.”

As for who will lead the negotiations file on the Palestinian side, Odeh said this was not clear, and not urgent, as there were currently no talks.

“The qualifications and the personality of candidates for such a position are very important, but we must remember that the person who runs the negotiations will have an army of experts and specialists to help him. One person can’t cover such complex issues alone,” she said. 

Odeh elaborated, “Erekat’s experience was unique as he came from an academic background, but he had practical experience as a political leader.” She added that the negotiation file was purely political, and placed a huge responsibility on the person negotiating on behalf of the Palestinian people worldwide.

“It totally depends on the political vision that person represents, in addition to his/her performance with the existing teams if negotiations are resumed,” she added. 
Erekat, 65, died in Jerusalem at Hadassah-University Medical Center, where he had been admitted after being diagnosed with the COVID-19 on October 8. Erekat underwent a lung transplant in the US in 2017 after becoming ill with pulmonary fibrosis.

Erekat, who grew up in Jericho, leaves his wife, Neameh, twin daughters, Dalal and Salam, and two sons, Ali and Muhammad.
Abbas described him as a “brother” and a “fighter,” and declared three days of national mourning.
Read more at The Media Line.