Home WorldMiddle East Saeb Erekat, Palestinian Chief Negotiator Amid Turmoil, Dies at 65

Saeb Erekat, Palestinian Chief Negotiator Amid Turmoil, Dies at 65

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JERUSALEM — Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official and negotiator who passionately advocated the establishment of an independent Palestinian state as a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Jerusalem. He was 65.

The hospital, Hadassah Medical Center, attributed the death to Covid-19. Officials there said he was admitted in critical condition with the disease on Oct. 18 and required immediate ventilation and resuscitation; he had previously had a lung transplant. They said he experienced multiple organ failure.

For three decades, as a confidant of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Erekat was one of the most prominent voices of the Palestinian cause.

As the chief negotiator for the Palestinians, he was one of the main authors of key parts of the landmark Oslo peace accords of the 1990s, the first agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which established Palestinian self-government in parts of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Although his public statements sometimes gave him the image of a firebrand, Mr. Erekat, a Western-educated diplomat, was liked and respected by many of his American and Israeli counterparts, who found him frank and knowledgeable.

But his life’s ambition of helping to bring about Palestinian statehood and an end to Israeli occupation eluded him, to his great frustration.

“I’m not finished with what I was born to do,” he recently messaged Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister and a negotiating partner.

Mr. Abbas declared a three-day period of mourning, with flags to be flown at half-staff.

“The departure of our brother and friend, the great fighter, Dr. Saeb Erekat, represents a huge loss for Palestine and our people, and we feel deeply saddened by his passing, especially in light of these difficult circumstances facing the Palestinian cause,” Mr. Abbas said on Tuesday in a statement carried by Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.

Mr. Erekat, who was known for occasional emotional outbursts, negotiated with a determination that his Israeli counterparts sometimes found obstructive. As the representative of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas, he stuck to fundamental Palestinian principles and hard-line, legalistic positions, at least in public, balancing competing imperatives to make progress toward an agreement without being seen as capitulating to Israeli demands.

When he burst onto the international scene in 1991, as the deputy head of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference, he stood out amid the sea of dark-suited diplomats in his black-and-white checked keffiya draped around his neck. The scarf, a symbol of Palestinian resistance and solidarity, was viewed by the Israeli delegation and others as a provocative publicity stunt.

But the Madrid conference, brokered by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, was the start of the first viable peace talks between the Israelis and the Arabs since the Camp David Accord 13 years earlier, and the first time Palestinians participated openly in direct negotiations with Israel.

Separate, secret bilateral talks led to the Oslo accords, a series of interim agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, starting in 1993.

Mr. Erekat was instrumental in negotiating the Oslo II Accord in 1995, the Hebron Protocol in 1997 and the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, all of which transferred Israeli-controlled territory to the Palestinians. He was responsible for drafting the texts of the agreements on behalf of the Palestinians. At other times, though, he was sidelined by his bosses, who preferred to negotiate through back channels.

The Oslo process, a source of great optimism at the time, never arrived at its intended conclusion: a final and comprehensive peace agreement that the Palestinians had expected would be between two sovereign states, Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Negotiations for a permanent deal continued on and off until 2014.

In December 2013, during the last round of serious negotiations, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Erekat took his American counterpart, Martin S. Indyk, on a tour of Hisham’s Palace, the remains of an 8th-century compound said to have belonged to the 10th Umayyad caliph, near Jericho.

“I meant to take Martin to the ruins to show him nothing lasts, and life goes on,” Mr. Erekat explained in an interview shortly after the talks collapsed. “These were great empires — they’re gone. I know that the Israeli occupation will go.”

Negotiators remembered Mr. Erekat as feisty and strong-willed. He would often react to a proposal that he thought unfair with one of his signature aphorisms: “I’m willing to limit my sovereignty but not my dignity” or, “I don’t walk around with a neon sign on my head saying ‘stupid.’”

“His negotiating style was to hold on to what cards he had because he had so few,” Mr. Indyk said. “But at heart he was deeply committed to the two-state solution.”

Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian political scientist who participated in the Madrid talks, said Mr. Erekat had also worked to document the history of the peace process to learn its lessons.

“He became the Palestinian memory of this era,” Mr. Khatib said.

A loyal member of Fatah, the mainstream political faction led by Mr. Abbas, Mr. Erekat resigned several times from various positions to protest a policy or make a point, but always returned to the fold.

In 2011, for instance, he resigned as chief negotiator after the Al Jazeera television network leaked details of Palestinian negotiating positions from a trove of confidential documents, embarrassing him by suggesting that the Palestinians were prepared to make big concessions to the Israelis.

But he was back at the negotiating table by the next round of talks.

In 2015, Mr. Erekat became secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group representing secular Palestinian factions. It was the second-highest post after the chairmanship, held by Mr. Abbas.

“Today, we mourn the loss of a dear colleague and a Palestinian patriot; someone who loved life and fought hard to secure a life of freedom for himself and his people,” said Hanan Ashrawi, another senior Palestinian official who worked with Mr. Erekat for decades.

Throughout the many years of negotiations, the Israelis and Palestinians have accused each other of intransigence. But Mr. Erekat constantly sought engagement with the Israelis and formed deep friendships with several of his interlocutors.

One of them, Ms. Livni, said that their talks were always honest and that when they disagreed, which they did frequently, it was in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Mr. Erekat was proud to represent the Palestinians, she said, and was admired for his deep knowledge of the issues.

“He viewed it as his destiny to try to achieve peace,” she said.

Mr. Erekat was less popular among other Israelis, however. They castigated him for campaigning to sue Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court and for accusing Israel of carrying out a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, an allegation that turned out to be unfounded.

In recent years, as his health deteriorated, he saw his diplomatic achievements cast aside and his goal of statehood slip further away.

The stalemate with Israel has only hardened under the Trump administration, which has openly sided with Israel.

After the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moved its embassy there six months later, upending years of American diplomacy, the Palestinian leadership rejected the possibility of further American-brokered talks.

Mr. Abbas declared the Oslo process “dead,” and Mr. Erekat warned that a two-state solution was becoming impossible. Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel “have managed to destroy that hope,” he said.

When President Trump presented his long-awaited peace plan in January, the Palestinian leadership angrily rejected it out of hand, describing it as hopelessly weighted toward Israeli interests.

In August, the administration brokered a deal for Israel to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates and then Bahrain, sidestepping the longtime prerequisite of making peace with the Palestinians.

Mr. Erekat denounced the new Arab openness to Israel, reminding the world that the Palestinians were not going away, that he was still there.

“Whatever happens, I’m the only thing that needs to be resolved,” he said. Insisting that the Palestinian question could not ultimately be ignored, he added: “I’m the fact on the ground. I’m the real fact on the ground.”

Saeb Muhammad Erekat was born on April 28, 1955, the sixth of seven brothers and sisters, to a family from Abu Dis in the Jerusalem governorate, which was then under Jordanian administration. He grew up in Jericho in theWest Bank. His father, Muhammad Erekat, lived in the United States for a long time as a businessman.

Mr. Erekat was 12 when the Israeli military occupied Jericho, along with the rest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. He described that moment as the end of his childhood and the beginning of his awakening as a Palestinian.

He told interviewers that he was first arrested by Israeli forces at 13, saying variously that he was detained for writing anti-occupation graffiti or for posting fliers and throwing stones.

At 17, he traveled to California, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and international relations at San Francisco State University. He returned to the West Bank in the late 1970s and became a lecturer at An Najah National University. He later earned a Ph.D. in peace studies from the University of Bradford in Britain.

Increasingly frustrated by the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mr. Erekat warned in recent years that if all hope for a two-state solution were lost, the only realistic alternative would be a single, Israeli-controlled entity in all the territory with Palestinians subject to an apartheidlike system.

“If the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about a two-state solution on the 1967 border or about one democratic state for everyone,” he wrote last year in an Op-Ed for The New York Times, “what it is actually talking about is the consolidation of a ‘one-state reality’: one state, Israel, controlling everything while imposing two different systems, one for Israeli Jews and another for Palestinians. This is known as apartheid.”

When news broke several years ago that Mr. Erekat had pulmonary fibrosis and needed a lung transplant, he said many Israeli officials and private citizens had asked him if they could be of help. But others deplored the possibility that his life might be saved by the health system of the state he disparaged.

The Israeli Health Ministry ultimately said that its waiting list for transplants gave priority to Israeli citizens, and the operation was carried out in Virginia.

When he contracted Covid-19 last month, Mr. Erekat was initially treated at home, and his family said he was recuperating well. But he was transferred to the Israeli hospital when his condition deteriorated.

Mr. Erekat is survived by his wife, Neameh; two daughters, Dalal and Salam; and two sons, Ali and Muhammad.

Mr. Indyk said that Mr. Erekat had been “committed to peace until his last breath” and that he had told Mr. Indyk privately that he had no problem with recognizing Israel as a Jewish state once Palestinian needs had been met in a final agreement. The Israelis have long demanded such recognition, and the Palestinians publicly rejected it, a major sticking point.

For Mr. Erekat, the establishment of a Palestinian state was “not a question of if, but when,” Mr. Indyk said, adding, “The tragedy is he never got to the ‘when.’”

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