Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian diplomat who spent decades leading negotiations with Israel, has died at the age of 65 due to complications from coronavirus, the Israeli hospital where he has been hospitalized said Tuesday.
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 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, the first major peace deals 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. He was notorious for falsely asserting that Israel had massacred hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp in 2002. And he was an adamant advocate of the Palestinian Authority’s ongoing policy of making payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists.
For frustrated Palestinians, Erekat 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.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning in PA-controlled areas in response to Erekat’s passing. He called Erekat “a brother, a friend, and a great fighter.”
“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.
‘Not a simple negotiator to deal with’
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 Oslo Accords, where he developed a reputation as a wily, tough negotiator.
“He was extremely knowledgeable, with an incredible memory. He could be pedantic to the point of infuriating. He was not a simple negotiator [to deal with]. But I always believed that behind that lay the desire to advance the Palestinians’ interest, and, yes, to come to an agreement,” said Gilad Sher, a senior Israeli negotiator who sat in on “hundreds of meetings” with Erekat, eventually developing a friendship with his Palestinian counterpart.
Erekat spoke fluent, eloquent English, 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.
Later, from 1999, he participated in numerous 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 Camp David talks was widely attributed to Arafat, including by president Bill Clinton, who hosted the effort, and subsequently stated: “I regret that in 2000 Arafat missed the opportunity to bring that [Palestinian] nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized in a just and lasting peace.”
The failure of the talks was followed by the accelerating violence of the Second Intifada protests and terror attacks — dominated by a strategic wave of Palestinian suicide bombings on Israeli civilians inside Israel that began in late 2000 — in which approximately 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed.
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.
Erekat was a prominent supporter of security coordination with Israel to crack down on Palestinians planning terror attacks against Israelis, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said.
But Erekat also supported the PA’s payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists convicted of attacking Israeli civilians. He called a 2019 attempt by Israel to crack down on the practice “piracy and theft,” and vowed that the PA would continue to pay.
Erekat also participated in later negotiations, spearheaded by US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, which also proved unsuccessful. Notably Ramallah did not respond to Olmert’s 2008 offer, the most generous peace plan ever put forth by an Israeli leader, and it stayed away from the table for nine months of a 10-month settlement freeze agreed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under Obama’s pressure in 2009-10.
The peace process 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 Palestinian obduracy.
“At the end of the day, the person who sits at the head of the Palestinian Authority is Mahmoud Abbas…to blame [Erekat] for the failure would not be fair. It could be that he was not enthusiastic about encouraging Abbas to sign [in 2008], but the determination was Abbas’s to make. And Erekat was certainly a positive force during negotiations, not someone who fled from solutions,” Olmert said.
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 under the administration 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.
The PA pre-emptively rejected Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal, introduced in January 2020, and continues to refuse all calls to re-engage, including from Israel’s recent Gulf partners the UAE and Bahrain, having severed all ties to the Trump administration after it recognized Jerusalem in December 2017.
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.
“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,” Sher acknowledged. “There was Saeb Erekat the TV personality and Saeb Erekat the negotiator.”
In 2002, Erekat was an influential propagator of false allegations that the Israeli army had massacred 500 Palestinians 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, 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.
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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.”
Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio that he was “saddened” by the news and wished Erekat’s family to “know no more sorrow.”
By contrast, 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?”
When Erekat was diagnosed with coronavirus in October, 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 hospital in Ein Kerem 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 annexation plans have been suspended as a condition of Israel’s peace treaty with the UAE, coordination has yet to return. Watching both governments move swiftly to save the aging diplomat angered some 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.
Erekat is survived by his wife Nimeh and his four children: Dalal, Ali, Salam and Mohammad.