Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator, dies at 65 from COVID-19

He fought for peace, but never lived to see it

Former US president Bill Clinton meets with former Palestinian president Yassar Arafat and Saeb Erekat (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
Former US president Bill Clinton meets with former Palestinian president Yassar Arafat and Saeb Erekat
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, died on Tuesday from complications of COVID-19 at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem, where he was being treated since his condition deteriorated in mid-October. He was 65.
Erekat first came into prominence in 1991, when he was appointed deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference. He was one of the few local Palestinian leaders who had never spent a day in an Israeli prison.
Born in 1955 in Abu Dis, south of Jerusalem, Erekat later played an active role in the peace talks with Israel in 1992 and 1993, when Israel and the PLO signed the Oslo Accords. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, former PLO leader Yasser Arafat appointed Erekat as head of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel.
Unlike most of the PLO leaders, Erekat grew up and lived all his life in the West Bank. His appointment to the senior position surprised several PLO officials, who returned to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with Arafat after the Oslo Accords were signed. Those officials did not understand why Arafat chose a “local” Palestinian official for such an important and influential job.
Until 1991, most Palestinians had hardly heard of Erekat, who worked as a political science professor at An-Najah University in Nablus. He also served as a regular columnist for the east Jerusalem newspaper Al-Quds.
Although he lived in Jericho, Erekat spent much of his time at the newspaper offices in east Jerusalem and held regular meetings with Palestinian and foreign journalists, as well as diplomats from around the world.
Between 1994 and 2003, he served as the first Palestinian Authority minister for local government.
In 1996, he became known as chief Palestinian negotiator and in the same year, he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council in the first Palestinian parliamentary election.
Erekat was considered one of Arafat’s most trusted advisers. He accompanied him to almost all meetings he had with world leaders and participated in the failed Camp David Summit in 2000 with then-Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.
Palestinians said that Arafat was so fond of Erekat’s negotiating skills, sharpness and articulation that he sometimes jokingly referred to him as the “devil from Jericho.”
After Arafat’s death in November 2004, Erekat became one of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s closest confidants and advisers. In February 2005, he was appointed as head of the PLO Negotiating Department.
He was again elected as a member of the Palestine Legislative Council in the 2006 parliamentary election, which resulted in a Hamas victory as a representative of the Jericho district, where he lived until his last days.
Over the past decade, Erekat became a senior member of the PLO Executive Committee and the Fatah Central Council – two key decision-making Palestinian institutions.
In 2011, he quit as the head of the PLO Negotiations Department after documents were leaked from his office to the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera network. The documents allegedly showed that Erekat was prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Israel on sensitive issues such as Jerusalem and the status of the Temple Mount, or al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Erekat denied the allegations and later withdrew his resignation.
In 2015, he replaced Yasser Abed Rabbo as secretary-general of the PLO. He held that position until his death.
UNLIKE SEVERAL veteran PLO officials, Erekat’s name was never linked to financial corruption in the PA. Those who knew him and worked with him said he and his family led a modest life.
Although he was a harsh critic of Israel and a “relentless” negotiator, he gained many friends in Israel and elsewhere around the world.
Many Israeli and foreign journalists also found it comfortable to deal with Erekat, who rarely turned down a request for an interview. He was one of the few Palestinian officials who continued to talk to the Israeli media despite calls by various Palestinian groups to boycott Israeli journalists.
Erekat’s frequent appearances in the Israeli and international media turned him into the No. 1 spokesman of the Palestinians. He was among the first Palestinian officials to comment on various events related to the conflict. His statements often reflected the official position of the PLO and Fatah, forcing other officials to follow suit.
Erekat was the author of at least eight books, some of which dealt with his experiences as a veteran negotiator with Israel. One of them, Life is Negotiations, was dedicated to university students and all those interested in diplomacy and negotiations.
Erekat considered himself a leading candidate to succeed Abbas, although he never mentioned this in public. In private conversations, he used to ask friends and journalists whether they thought he was qualified to become the next leader of the Palestinians.
But Erekat’s chances of succeeding Abbas suffered a major setback when he underwent a lung transplant in the US three years ago and since then, his health forced him to limit his activities.
Erekat was one of the staunch critics of the administration of US President Donald Trump, especially its perceived “bias” in favor of Israel. He also spearheaded the Palestinian campaign to foil Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, also known as the “Deal of the Century,” and in the past four years, he was often quoted as saying that the two-state solution was no longer viable because of Israeli and US policies.
Recently, he criticized the normalization agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain but he urged Palestinians not to “harm” symbols and leaders of Arab countries by burning their flags and pictures.
In the past few weeks, Erekat suddenly became active on his Twitter account when he began replying to his critics, especially Arabs from the Gulf states who launched a scathing attack on the Palestinian leadership. His criticism of the normalization agreements placed him on a collision course with the Arab League and many people in the Gulf states, particularly after he talked about the emergence of “Zionist Arabs.”
After he announced in early October that he had contracted the coronavirus, Erekat seemed to be touched by the fact that many Israelis and Jews around the world, including some of his staunchest critics, had wished him a speedy recovery and he replied to almost all his well-wishers.
It’s unlikely that Erekat’s departure from the Palestinian political arena will lead to a policy change toward Israel and the peace process. The Palestinians may have lost one of their most experienced negotiators, but Erekat’s political statements and positions will continue to reverberate – if and when the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians resume.