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Longtime chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat dies

Saeb Erekat shows a map as he addresses journalists in the West Bank city of Jericho.
(Ahmad Gharabli / AFP/Getty Images)

Long after peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel broke down, Saeb Erekat continued to be referred to as the Palestinians’ chief negotiator. His title was testament both to a certain unassailable status he held in the history of his people — and the stasis of the cause.

Arguably the most internationally recognized Palestinian figure for decades, after Yasser Arafat, Erekat helped craft the landmark Oslo peace accords in 1993 that opened the path to normal relations — since collapsed — and that won Israeli and Palestinian leaders a Nobel Prize.

Charismatic and articulate, he defended the Palestinian plea for land, recognition and statehood from the halls of the United Nations to the studios of the U.S. cable TV shows.

Erekat died Tuesday morning at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where he was under care after contracting COVID-19. He was already in poor health, having undergone a lung transplant in the U.S. in 2017.

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He was 65.

Erekat’s Fatah party announced his death, which was also confirmed by a relative and a Palestinian official, the Associated Press reported.

Erekat’s smooth, slightly lilting English; round bespectacled face, and frequent five-o’clock shadow made him an appealing figure to many audiences. He was instrumental in ushering the reputation of the Palestine Liberation Organization from that of a terrorist group of airplane hijackers in the 1970s to a legitimate governing body ready and willing to build a nation.

Erekat’s critics among right-wing Israelis believed he white-washed the Palestinian struggle for freedom, which often included terrible violence. Critics within his own Palestinian world often attacked him for not going far enough in pressing for concessions from Israel or the international community.

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For many Palestinians, he lacked the street credentials that those who were active in the armed struggle possessed. That hurt him with much of the rank and file, who ridiculed his academic airs.

But he had a nearly unique ability to deal with the international community and especially the Americans.

Aaron David Miller, one of the United States’ most experienced negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Erekat possessed a talent of communication and attention to detail that Arafat could not find in his other lieutenants.

“He had the set of skills, he was an academic, he did his homework,” Miller said in an interview.

Though he failed to achieve it, Erekat’s desire for peace and an agreement of co-existence between Israel and a future Palestine were foremost in his efforts, those who worked with him said.

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“He was truly one of the most committed to peace people in the Palestinian community,” Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, said in an interview.

Some of his American interlocuters, however, grew extremely frustrated with Erekat. He would be one way in private talks, flexible and reasonable, but then rigid and unyielding in public. It had a lot to do with his entrapment in the Palestinian cause, its talking points, and the international world of diplomacy, Miller said.

U.S.-educated and an admirer of the United States he encountered in his youth, Erekat was especially dismayed at the deteriorating relationship between Palestinians and the Trump administration, which sided with Israel in all settlement talks.

“Why this war against Palestinian moderates — and Israeli moderates — by this administration,” he asked, in a 2019 interview with The Times at his Ramallah office. “Is there a reason? I can’t figure it out.

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“The only explanation I have is ideological,” he added, listing the Trump administration’s pro-Israel positions, including the 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, the withdrawal of American aid to the Palestinians and the closure of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.

“I haven’t seen more damage done to America’s image and interests as I’ve seen during [the Trump administration’s] period,” he said, adding that in his view, the Trump government “wants to brush Palestinians aside.”

Erekat was born in then-Jordanian held east Jerusalem in 1955. At the age of 17, he left home for the first time in order to attend a San Francisco high school as a visiting foreign student. He took a liking to the United States, graduating from San Francisco State University in 1977 with a degree in international relations, earning a master’s degree in political science two years later.

In 1983, he received a Ph.D. in peace and conflict studies at Bradford University in the U.K.

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In an interview earlier this year, Uri Savir, Erekat’s counterpart as Israel’s chief negotiator during talks surrounding the mid-1990s Oslo peace accords, said, “Saeb is a brilliant man. A brave man. A man of peace, very moderate, with all the normal critique of [Israel’s] occupation,” he said. “I don’t think he’s really a political animal, but he ended up in a top leadership role because his particular talents were essential for the team.”

Before joining the Palestinian negotiating team in 1991, Erekat taught political science at An-Najah National University in Nablus, in the West Bank, and served on the editorial board of the daily Al-Quds newspaper.

Savir, co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace, said Erekat enjoyed “an unusual gift for negotiation, an uncanny ability to formulate the precise lines necessary for a legal document — in this he is second to none — and an extremely rare ability to represent his leader, who was Yasser Arafat, and represent matters to him.”

Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who led Israel’s negotiating team with Erekat between 2006 and 2009, said that he brought an impressive grasp of history to the table, along with detailed knowledge of previous peacemaking efforts.

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“To my regret we did not achieve an accord,” she said in an interview, despite the fact that “he always says that if it depended only on him and me, we would have long had a deal.”

Their enduring friendship, she said, was “based on mutual respect, and on mutual trust, even when we didn’t agree.”

In August. Erekat was appointed a 2020-21 fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Notwithstanding his longevity on the Palestinian political scene, Erekat was never tainted by the suspicions of corruption or malfeasance that plague most of the Palestinian leadership.

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“He was always proud to note that he lived in the house he was born in,” said Yossi Beilin, a former minister in several Israeli governments and a key figure in the Oslo talks.

Erekat was “a walking archive of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said. “He was a Palestinian nationalist, a patriot, a man of many insights.”

During the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s, Beilin said, Erekat told him that he wouldn’t let his sons leave the house. “If he leaves and walks around with his pals after school they’ll throw rocks on your kids,” Beilin recalled Erekat telling him. “If he doesn’t, he’ll be shamed. If he does, he could be killed — and I don’t want either to happen.”

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Erekat, Beilin said, was among the first Palestinian leaders not to insist on a return to the pre-1967 war lines in a final status agreement with Israel, but who advocated a plan based on exchange of territories. “I don’t need the exactitude, but give me my 6,200 square kilometers [2,400 square miles],” Beilin recalled Erekat’s stance, a key moment of progress in the long road to resolution of the still-festering conflict.

Erekat suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a debilitating disease, for many years. Three years ago, he received a lung transplant at the Inova hospital center in Virginia, which restored him to health but left him at high risk for infection by the coronavirus.

He was found to have COVID-19 on Oct. 8. After 10 days of mild symptoms and self-isolation at home, in the Palestinian city of Jericho, his health deteriorated sharply and he was transferred to the Sheba Medical Center, near Tel Aviv, by an ambulance heavily guarded by Israeli army vehicles.

He is survived by his wife, Niemeh; twin daughters, Dalal and Salam; and two sons, Mohammed and Ali.

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Staff writer Wilkinson, who served as Jerusalem bureau chief from 1998-2003, reported from Washington, and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem.


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