Obituary: Saeb Erakat Was a Tough Negotiator Who Wanted Peace With Israel

Published November 10th, 2020 - 09:52 GMT
 PLO  Secretary General Saeb Erekat (Twitter)
PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat (Twitter)
“Why should any Israeli talk to me now?… Why should they talk to me when somebody else will do the job for them?” he told The Times of Israel in 2019.

Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian diplomat who spent decades leading negotiations with Israel, died late Tuesday morning at the age of 65 due to complications from coronavirus, the Israeli hospital where he has been hospitalized said.

Erekat was taken to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital last month after several days of being treated by his daughter at his West Bank home.

Erekat led successive Palestinian negotiations with Israel for decades, including talks that led to the signing of the 1995 Oslo Accords, the first major peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. A dominant figure in Palestinian politics for decades, he became secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2015, though his influence in shaping Ramallah’s relations with Israel and the world went far beyond the bureaucratic post.

He was an outspoken and passionate advocate of Palestinian statehood, with many Israeli officials who sat across from him at the negotiating table vouching for his commitment to a two-state solution.

But Erekat was also a controversial figure: For some Israelis, his uncompromising rhetoric was emblematic of Palestinian rejectionism, and he was notorious for falsely asserting that Israel had massacred hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp in 2002. For frustrated Palestinians, he was part of an aging, unchanging leadership that had failed to deliver on its central promise — a state — even as it continued to coordinate with Israel.

Born in Abu Dis, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in 1955, Erekat watched Israeli soldiers wrest control of the West Bank from Jordan in 1967. He went on to receive his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees at San Francisco State University in the United States.

After earning a doctorate in peace studies from Bradford University in the United Kingdom, Erekat returned to the West Bank to teach political science at Al-Najah University in Nablus. He eventually settled in Jericho with his wife and four children.

A member of the Palestinian Fatah movement, Erekat was a confidant of PLO chairman and Fatah chief Yasser Arafat. After Arafat’s death, Erekat became a close aide to his successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Erekat was an early advocate of talks with Israel. As early as the 1980s, he declared that the conflict with Israel had no military solution.

He went on to serve as head of the Palestinian negotiating team at the 1991 Madrid Conference before leading the delegation during talks that led to the 1995 Oslo Accords, where he developed a reputation as a wily, tough negotiator.

Erekat spoke fluent, eloquent English and had an engaging demeanor, which helped him quickly become the PLO’s face to the international press. During the early, hopeful years of the Oslo process, he also maintained close contacts with a number of his interlocutors on the Israeli side.

Beginning in 1999, he participated in endless rounds of meetings with Israeli and American officials, seeking a breakthrough on statehood. Those talks — which led to peace summits with American mediation at Camp David in 2000 and Taba in early January 2001 — ultimately foundered, with Israelis and Palestinians criticizing one another’s intransigence.

“At the end of the day, I know Palestinians and Israelis can make peace. My heart aches because I know we were so close,” Erekat said in an interview with TV news documentary show “Frontline.”

The failure of the talks was followed by the accelerating violence of the Second Intifada, a wave of Palestinian protest and terror attacks that began in late 2000. The violence claimed the lives of approximately 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis. But Erekat continued to insist that Israelis and Palestinians could still surmount the division and reach an accord.

”Even at this darkest of hours, I believe that peace is achievable,” Erekat told The New York Times at his home in Jericho in late 2001, after the failure of the Taba talks.

“[Erekat] always has been against the use of violence. He supported other means to put pressure on Israel — diplomatic means — but he was totally against the Second Intifada and tried his best to bridge the gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Israeli negotiator and former justice minister Yossi Beilin in an interview with i24 News. Beilin knew Erekat personally and participated alongside him in several rounds of talks in the 1990s.

Subsequent rounds of negotiations, spearheaded by US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in which Erekat participated also proved unsuccessful. Ramallah did not respond to prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer, the most generous peace plan ever put forth by an Israeli leader.

The peace process on which the Palestinian diplomat had staked his legacy sputtered to a halt, and talks largely ceased. While Erekat was always careful to insist that he was a negotiator, not a decision-maker, he took a fair amount of criticism for the Palestinian refusal.

Even as negotiations faded, Erekat continued to represent the Palestinian Authority to the world. In the absence of peace talks, Palestinian diplomacy focused on attempting to increase pressure on Israel in international institutions: Erekat was deeply involved in efforts to gain official recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and in the European Union; he also called for a boycott of products produced in West Bank Settlements.

But that strategy, too, appears to have been largely unsuccessful. Israel is far from a pariah state, even as Ramallah has grown only more isolated internationally — especially since the election of US President Donald Trump.

Erekat was a harsh critic of the Trump administration’s policies on the peace process, which he said disincentivized Israelis from returning to negotiate with the Palestinians. He categorically refused to negotiate on the basis of the Trump peace plan, which he said did not satisfy even minimal Palestinian demands.

“Why should any Israeli talk to me now?… Why should they talk to me when somebody else will do the job for them?” he told The Times of Israel in 2019.

Far from straightforward

Erekat leaves behind a complex legacy: that of a failed peacemaker whose intentions and stratagems will be dissected by historians in the years to come. While Erekat never had the final say on signing an accord with Israel, some in both the Israeli and Palestinian publics criticized him as one of many officials at fault in the failure to reach an accord.

He often made controversial public statements without hard evidence. In 2002, Erekat was an influential propagator of a false report that the Israeli army had massacred 500 Palestinians in Jenin. In 2014, he compared Netanyahu to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the extremist Islamic State.

But many who knew him, including Israelis with whom he negotiated, attested to his goodwill and seriousness in wanting a two-state solution.

“He was a tough negotiator, no question, but there is a big difference between someone who doesn’t want to make a deal and who is stubborn on all issues, and someone who does want a deal and who is putting pressure for his own views,” Beilin said.

Ofer Cassif, a Jewish lawmaker from the predominantly Arab Joint List party, was among the first Israeli public figures to comment on Erekat’s death, calling him “a true fighter for peace” and sending his condolences to Erekat’s family and the Palestinian people. Fellow Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi described Erekat as “a friend and courageous leader.”

When Erekat was diagnosed with coronavirus earlier this month, he sought to sound hopeful in a phone call with The Times of Israel. None of his family members had tested positive for the virus, he said, which he called “a miracle.”

But he acknowledged that his medical situation was far from straightforward. He survived both a mild heart attack in 2012 and a 2017 lung transplant after years of suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that scars the lungs and damages their ability to circulate oxygen.

On October 18, Erekat was rushed across the Green Line dividing Israel from the West Bank for treatment at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

Erekat’s hospitalization at Hadassah sparked some controversy among Palestinians. Ramallah has refused to coordinate with Israel for months in protest of an Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank, making it far more difficult for Palestinians to receive permits for treatment in Israeli hospitals.

While Israel has said that annexation plans have been suspended due to its normalization deal with the United Arab emirates, coordination between the two sides has yet to return. Watching both governments move swiftly to save the ailing diplomat angered some Palestinians in the West Bank, who viewed it as another example of the preferable treatment received by their leadership.

Less than a month after his hospitalization, Erekat died. He is survived by his wife Nimeh and his four children: Dalal, Ali, Salam and Mohammad.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© 2020 The Times of Israel. All rights reserved.

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