Saeb Erekat, spokesman and negotiator for the Palestinians, dies at 65

Saeb Erekat speaks during a press conference in Ramallah on Apil 10, 2019.
Saeb Erekat speaks during a press conference in Ramallah on Apil 10, 2019. © Abbas Momani, AFP

Saeb Erekat, a veteran peace negotiator and prominent international spokesman for the Palestinians for more than three decades, died on Tuesday, weeks after being infected by the coronavirus. He was 65.

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The American-educated Erekat was involved in nearly every round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians going back to the landmark Madrid conference in 1991, when he famously showed up draped in a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.

Over the next few decades, Erekat was a constant presence in Western media, where he tirelessly advocated for a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, defended the Palestinian leadership and blamed Israel — particularly hard-line leader Benjamin Netanyahu — for the failure to reach an agreement. 

As a loyal aide to Palestinian leaders — first Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas — Erekat clung to this strategy until his death, even as hopes for Palestinian statehood sank to new lows. 

In the weeks leading up to his death in an Israeli hospital, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had normalised ties with Israel, breaking with the long-held Arab position that a deal on Palestinian statehood must precede normalization.

Abbas and members of his inner circle, including Erekat, found themselves internationally sidelined and deeply unpopular among Palestinians. And decades of unfettered Israeli settlement expansion had made a statehood deal based on the partition of territory increasingly unlikely.

Erekat confirmed on October 8 that he had been infected with the coronavirus. In 2017 he underwent a lung transplant in the United States, which suppressed his immune system.

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He was rushed from his home in the West Bank city of Jericho to Hadassah Medical Center in Israel last week. Doctors there placed him on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma after his condition deteriorated.

His Fatah party announced his death in a statement on Tuesday. Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, said Erekat's passing was a "huge loss" for the Palestinians.

The road to Oslo 

Erekat was born on April 28, 1955, in Jerusalem. He spent most of his life in the occupied West Bank town of Jericho, where, as a child, he witnessed Palestinians fleeing to nearby Jordan during the 1967 war.

After studying at American and British universities, Erekat returned to the West Bank to work as a journalist and university professor. A self-described pragmatist, he invited Israeli students to visit his university in Nablus in the late 1980s and condemned violence on all sides.

He was nevertheless convicted of incitement by an Israeli military court in 1987 after troops raided the university and found an English-language newsletter he had authored in which he wrote that “Palestinians must learn how to endure and reject and resist″ all the forms of occupation.

The first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted later that year in the form of mass protests, general strikes and clashes with Israeli troops. That uprising, along with US pressure on Israel, culminated in the Madrid conference, widely seen as the start of the Mideast peace process.

Erekat was a prominent representative of Palestinians living inside the occupied territories at the time, but became a close aide to Arafat when the exiled Palestine Liberation Organization returned to the territories following the 1993 Oslo accords.

In subsequent years he routinely served as Arafat’s translator, and was sometimes accused of editing his remarks to soften the rough edges of the guerrilla leader-turned-aspiring statesman.

Then, as now, the Palestinians sought an independent state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Oslo accords were intended to pave the way for such a settlement, but the process stalled amid attacks by Palestinian militant groups and continued Israeli settlement construction.

'I have no army, no navy, no economy'

Erekat was part of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David in 2000, when President Bill Clinton brought the two sides together for marathon talks aimed at reaching a final agreement. The talks ended inconclusively, and a few months later a second and far more violent intifada erupted.

By then Erekat had become a senior Palestinian official and was seen as a possible successor to Arafat, who died in a French hospital in 2004. Instead, he continued as a top aide to Abbas and served as a senior negotiator in sporadic peace efforts in the late 2000s. 

“I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in the history of man,” he told a reporter in 2007, the year that the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas’ forces. “I have no army, no navy, no economy, my society is fragmented.”

Israel and the Palestinians have not held substantive talks since Netanyahu — a hard-liner who opposes concessions to the Palestinians — took office in 2009. But Erekat continued to call for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines, accusing the Israeli leader of putting a “nail in the coffin” of hopes for peace by continuing to expand settlements.

While Erekat was welcomed in world capitals, he was more controversial in the West Bank, where he was seen as part of an elite clique enjoying a jet-setting lifestyle but detached from the public and clinging to an unrealistic goal after years of failed peace efforts and Israeli settlement expansion.

He was a strident critic of President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and would allow it to keep nearly all of east Jerusalem and up to 30% of the West Bank.

“To reject this plan isn’t to reject peace but the contrary: Rejecting it means rejecting the perpetuation of a system of apartheid,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in January, closing the column by repeating his lifelong call for a two-state solution.

Erekat is survived by his wife, two sons, twin daughters and eight grandchildren.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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