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Top PLO negotiator dies of COVID-19 in Jerusalem hospital

Erekat remembered as a peace-seeker by some, a demonizer of Israel by others

Palestinians declare 3 days of mourning; right-wing MKs denounce sorrowful Israeli reactions; ex-Trump envoy: We were worlds apart but he tried to represent his people

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho is at left, and PA security chief Majed Faraj is at second left. (Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. Netanyahu aide Yitzhak Molcho is at left, and PA security chief Majed Faraj is at second left. (Amos Ben Gershom /GPO/Flash90)

Many Israeli, Palestinian and international officials mourned top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on Tuesday, after his death from COVID-19 at a Jerusalem hospital at the age of 65, while right-wing Israeli MKs slammed him for his support for payments to terrorists and denounced fellow lawmakers who eulogized him. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank.

A deeply controversial figure, Erekat negotiated for Palestinian statehood for decades and advocated a two-state solution, but was deeply involved in the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of a series of Israeli peace offers, oversaw campaigns against Israel in numerous international forums, and firmly backed the PA’s ongoing payments to families of Palestinian terrorists.

Erekat was eulogized by the Palestinian Authority and some mainstream Israeli politicians, hailed by the Gaza-ruling terrorist group Hamas as “a fighter,” and castigated by Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich for playing a “double game” of ostensibly seeking peace while fueling terror.

Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s former Middle East envoy, sent condolences and said he and Erekat had been “worlds apart in our views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its history & how to resolve it. But he tried hard to represent his people. Wishing his family much comfort/strength during this difficult time.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, signs a request to join 15 United Nations-linked and other international treaties at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on April 1, 2014. Standing next to him is Saeb Erekat. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

A dominant figure in Palestinian politics for decades, Erekat helmed successive Palestinian negotiations with Israel for decades, including talks that led to the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the first major peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 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.

“Saeb Erekat spent his life as a fighter and a steadfast negotiator defending Palestine, its cause, its people, and its independent national decision,” Abbas said in a statement. His death “represents a great loss for Palestine and our people… especially in light of the difficult circumstances facing the Palestinian cause.”

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during a joint news conference with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, May 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Former PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah hailed “a life full of faithful struggle for Palestine and its people,” while senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said he was “unwavering in his pursuit of a just peace, & totally undaunted in his quest for freedom & rights.”

In a statement calling Erekat “a fighter,” the Hamas terror group, which seeks to destroy Israel, offered “the heartfelt condolences of the Palestinian people to our brothers in Fatah.”

Many Israeli current and former officials — including those who sat across from Erekat at the negotiating table — mourned Erekat as a moderate who sought peace, but Israeli critics denounced him as a hostile figure who demonized the Jewish state.

“I’m saddened by the death of Saeb Erekat,” said former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. “Saeb dedicated his life to his people. Reaching peace is my destiny, he used to say.”

“Being sick, he texted me: ‘I’m not finished with what I was born to do.’ My deepest condolences to the Palestinians and his family. He will be missed,” Livni said.

But right-wing Israeli politicians highlighted Erekat’s propagation of false stories about alleged Israeli atrocities, his support for boycotting Israeli settlements, and his advocacy of the PA’s ongoing payments to the families of terrorists.

Erekat reportedly visited the home of an officer in the PA security services killed during a terror attack against Israeli soldiers and paid his condolences to the family.

The senior PLO official also sent a “humanitarian letter” to Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine chief Ahmad Sa’adat in which he expressed polite affection for the terror chief. Sa’adat currently sits in Israeli jail for his involvement in the assassination of the nationalist politician Rehovam Zeevi.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu watch Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, seated center left, and Israeli counterpart Dan Shomron, seated, during the signing of the agreement at the Erez Crossing Wednesday Jan 15 1997, on an accord extending Palestinian rule to most of the West Bank city of Hebron and parts of the West Bank. US envoy Dennis Ross is standing center at rear. (AP Phto/Med Rawas, POOL)

“Israelis who express sorrow over the death of an anti-Semitic terror-supporter who was one of the leaders of the fight against Israel are beyond belief,” said Smotrich, a prominent far-right lawmaker from the Yamina party. “[It is] a sad moral distortion,” Smotrich said, adding similar criticism Israeli officials who cooperated with him while he “played a double game, continuing to fuel terrorism against Israeli citizens.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair called him a “terrorist who worked for the destruction of Israel,” and slammed journalists who mourned him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and son Yair in Tel Aviv, January 23, 2020. (Aleksey Nikolskyi/Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

However, Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who is close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Army Radio that he was “saddened” by the news of Erekat’s death and wished that his family “know no more sorrow.”

Fellow Likud member Shlomo Karhi promptly denounced the “absurd reactions by Tzachi Hanegbi and others,” adding two Bible phrases about celebrating the death of one’s enemy. Ariel Kallner, also of Netanyahu’s ruling party, argued that the Israelis mourning Erekat were the same people celebrating Trump’s loss in last week’s US election.

“There seems to be a worrying correlation between those who expressed schadenfreude towards the US president most loyal to the return [of Jews] to Zion, and those mourning the death of someone who dedicated all his life to war against the Jewish state,” he said.

Ofir Sofer, a lawmaker for the religious right-wing Yamina party, said: “Saeb Erekat praised terrorists, advocated a boycott of the State of Israel and was even one of the promoters of the Jenin massacre blood libel. How can even half a good word be said about him?”

In 2002, Erekat was an influential propagator of a false report that the Israeli army had massacred 500 Palestinian civilians in Jenin. In fact, in bitter fighting when the IDF entered the Jenin refugee camp, from which Palestinian suicide bombers were being dispatched to target Israelis in the Second Intifada, 50-55 Palestinians — most of them armed gunmen — and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed. The false allegations disseminated by Erekat and his colleagues were given wide credibility and immense coverage in much of the international media.

Erekat also supported the PA’s payment of stipends to the families of Palestinian terrorists convicted of attacking Israeli civilians. He called a 2019 attempt by Israel to oppose and prevent the practice “piracy and theft,” and vowed that the PA would continue to pay.

Some far-right Israeli political figures cheered the news of Erekat’s demise.

“It was good to open the day with the good news about the demise of a terrorist who for years funded and supported the murder of Jews. We look forward to similar news about [Abbas] and all enemies of Israel. Cheers, Jews,” said Bentzi Gopstein, the leader of the right-wing extremist group Lehava.

Former Israeli negotiator Gilad Sher, who built a friendship with Erekat that outlasted the talks, told The Times of Israel that he was “appalled by the hatred and the curses and the death wishes on social media.”

“Saeb Erekat, as I knew him, was a man who neither encouraged terror nor ever bore arms,” Sher said.

Sher also acknowledged: “There was an enormous gap between the things that Erekat said in front of television cameras in Ramallah and around the world and things he said before and since around the negotiating table. Sometimes, this gap was seemed impossible to cognitively reconcile… There was Saeb Erekat the TV personality and Saeb Erekat the negotiator.”

“Saeb will not live to see his people freed from the chains of the occupation, but generations of Palestinians will remember him as one of the giants who dedicated his life for their independence,” tweeted Ayman Odeh, leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List Knesset party.

Ofer Cassif, a Jewish lawmaker from the Joint List, 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.”

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh (R) and party member Ahmad Tibi arrive for a meeting with party members at the Knesset on September 22, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The left-wing Meretz party said that Erekat had “worked all his life for peace, supported the two-state solution and opposed violence. We now must continue in his path toward just peace and the end of the conflict.”

Former Meretz leader Zehava Galon said Erekat had “harbored anger, no doubt, but alongside it was a staunch belief in the possibility of coexistence between the Jordan River and the [Mediterranean] Sea.”

The Peace Now left-wing group said it was “a sad day for all supporters of peace in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We shall remember his dedication for the vision of peace and the two-state solution.”

Economy Minister Amir Peretz, leader of the once-mighty Labor party whose leader Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords, said Erekat “will be remembered as a person who believed in the [peace] negotiations, was part of the talks with Israel for many years, and favored peace over violence. My condolences to his family and the Palestinian people.”

Peace negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat at the US State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

“I extend my deepest condolences to the family of #SaebErekat and the Palestinian people,” tweeted Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations’ envoy for the Middle East peace process. “You remained convinced that Israel and Palestine can live in peace; never gave up on negotiations; and stood proudly for your people! We will miss you, my friend. May you rest in peace!”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hailed Erekat as “a champion of dialogue and Palestinian rights,” adding: “I am saddened to hear the news of his tragic passing. My thoughts are with his family and the Palestinian people at this difficult time.”

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