Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, dies at the age of 65

JERUSALEM – Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian official and negotiator who has called for Hamas to establish an independent Palestinian state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, died in an Israeli hospital on Tuesday. He was 65 years old.

The hospital confirmed his death. Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. His daughter and his party Fatah. The hospital said that Mr. Erekat, who had previously undergone a lung transplant, entered critical condition on October 18 with Covid-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus. I need immediate ventilation and resuscitation.

“His condition did not improve and remained critical, and he died after multiple organ failure,” the hospital said, adding that Mr. Erekat died there in the intensive care unit.

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

As the main negotiator for the Palestinians, he was one of the main authors of major parts of the historic Oslo Peace Accords of the 1990s, the first agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, which established Palestinian self-rule in parts of the occupied West. The bank and the Gaza Strip.

Although his public statements sometimes gave him a disturbing picture, he was loved and respected by many of his American and Israeli counterparts, who found the Western-educated diplomat frank and knowledgeable.

But his life’s ambition to help establish a Palestinian state and end the Israeli occupation eluded him and is a source of frustration.

“I didn’t finish what I was born to do,” Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister and one of his key negotiating partners, wrote recently. “I beat a lung transplant, and I’m going to beat this as a covid.”

Mr. Abbas declared a three-day mourning period, with flags flying over half of the employees.

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

Mr. Erekat, who was known for having occasional emotional outbursts, negotiated a determination that his Israeli counterparts sometimes found a hindrance. As the representative of Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas, he adhered to basic Palestinian principles and hard-line and legal stances, at least in public, striking a balance between competing imperatives for progress toward an agreement without being seen as a surrender to Israeli demands.

When he set out on the international scene in 1991, as deputy head of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference, he stood out in the midst of a sea of ​​dark-dressed diplomats wearing black and white keffiyehs wrapped around his neck. The Israeli delegation and others considered the veil, a symbol of Palestinian resistance and solidarity, as a provocative propaganda ploy.

But the Madrid conference, brokered by Secretary of State James Baker III, marked the beginning of the first viable peace talks between Israelis and Arabs since the Camp David Accords 13 years ago, and it was the first time that the Palestinians had publicly participated in direct negotiations with Israel.

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

Mr. Erekat played a key role in negotiating the Second Oslo Accords in 1995, the Hebron Protocol in 1997 and the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, all of which transferred the territories controlled by Israel to the Palestinians. He was responsible for drafting the texts of the agreements on behalf of the Palestinians. But at other times, he was sidelined by his superiors who preferred to negotiate via back channels.

The Oslo process, which was a source of great optimism at the time, never reached its intended end: a final and comprehensive peace agreement signed by the Palestinians would be between two sovereign states, Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip and its capital, East Jerusalem.

Negotiations to reach a permanent agreement and suspend them continued until 2014.

In December 2013, during the last round of serious negotiations, brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Erekat escorted his American counterpart, Martin S. Indyk, on a tour of Hisham’s Palace, where the remains of an eighth-century complex were said to belong to the tenth Umayyad caliph near From Jericho.

“I meant to take Martin to the rubble to show him that nothing lasts, that life goes on,” said Mr. Erekat in an interview shortly after the talks collapsed. These were great empires – they were gone. I know the Israeli occupation will be gone. “

The negotiators remembered Mr. Erekat as courageous and strong-willed. He often reacted to a suggestion he thought was unfair with one of his aphorisms: “I am willing to restrict my sovereignty but not my dignity” or “I don’t walk around with a neon sign on my head that says ‘stupid.'”

“His negotiation style was to stick to the cards he had because he had so few cards,” said Mr. Indyk. “But in essence he was deeply committed to the two-state solution.”

“Saeb was very loyal to the cause,” said Ghassan al-Khatib, a Palestinian professor of political science who participated in the Madrid talks. He said that Mr. Erekat also worked on documenting the history of the peace process to learn its lessons.

Al-Khatib said, “It has become the memory of the Palestinians in this era.”

Mr. Erekat, a loyal member of Fatah, the main political faction led by Mr. Abbas, has resigned several times from various positions to protest a policy or to prove his point, but he always returned to the fold.

In 2011, for example, he resigned as chief negotiator after the Al Jazeera television network leaked details of Palestinian negotiating positions from a set of classified documents, embarrassing Mr. Erekat by suggesting that the Palestinians were ready to make major concessions to the Israelis.

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

In 2015, he became secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that represents secular Palestinian factions. It was the second highest position after the presidency, held by Mr. Abbas.

Throughout the operation, the Israelis and Palestinians accused each other of obstinacy. But Erekat has consistently sought to reach out to the Israelis and forged deep friendships with many of his interlocutors.

One of them, Ms Livni, said their conversations were always honest and that when they disagreed, which they did over and over again, it was in an atmosphere of mutual respect. She said that Mr. Erekat was proud to represent the Palestinians and was impressed with his in-depth knowledge of the issues.

“He considered that his destiny was to try to achieve peace,” she said.

But Erekat was less popular with other Israelis. They criticized him for campaigning to prosecute Israel for war crimes at the International Criminal Court and for accusing Israel of committing a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, a claim that turned out to be unfounded.

In recent years, as his health deteriorated, he has seen his diplomatic achievements step aside and his goal of statehood.

The deadlock with Israel has intensified under the Trump administration, which has openly sided with Israel. Mr. Erekat said that in the early months of the new US administration, he spoke “more than once” with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser, and met several times with US officials.

He continued to meet with international diplomats and promoted the basic plan for new talks.

But after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and moved its embassy there six months later, at the heart of US diplomacy for years, the Palestinian leadership rejected the possibility of further talks with US mediation.

Mr. Abbas declared the Oslo process “dead,” and Mr. Erekat warned that a two-state solution had become impossible. He said that Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “managed to destroy this hope.”

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

In August, the administration brokered a deal for Israel to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates and then Bahrain, ignoring the old basic condition of making peace with the Palestinians.

Mr. Erekat denounced the new Arab openness to Israel, reminding the world that the Palestinians would not leave and that they were still there.

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 the West Bank. His father, Mohamed Erekat, lived in the United States for a long time as a businessman.

Erekat was twelve years old when the Israeli army occupied Jericho, along with the rest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, in the aftermath 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.

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He told interlocutors that he was arrested for the first time by the Israeli forces at the age of 13, saying differently that he was arrested for writing slogans against the occupation or for publishing leaflets and throwing stones.

At the age of seventeen, he traveled to California, where he obtained BA and MA degrees in Political Science and International Relations from 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 obtained his doctorate degree. In Peace Studies from the University of Bradford in Britain.

Increasingly frustrated with the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Mr. Erekat has warned in recent years that if all hopes for a two-state solution are lost, the only realistic alternative would be a single, Israeli-controlled entity in all the territories with the Palestinians subject to the apartheid regime.

He wrote last year in an editorial for the New York Times: “If the Trump administration does not want to talk about a two-state solution on the 1967 borders or about a one-state democracy for all,” then what is in reality the talk about entrenching the “one-state reality”: one state, Israel, It controls everything while imposing two different systems, one for the Israeli Jews and the other for the Palestinians. This is known as apartheid. “

When word spread several years ago that Mr. Erekat had pulmonary fibrosis and needed a lung transplant, he said that many Israeli officials and ordinary citizens asked him if they could help. But others lamented the possibility that the country’s underestimated health system could save his life.

In the end, the Israeli Ministry of Health said that the transplant waiting list prioritized 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 recovering well. But he was transferred to the Israeli hospital when his condition deteriorated.

Mr. Erekat escaped from his wife, Nehme. Two daughters, Dalal and Salam. And two sons Ali and Muhammad.

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

For Mr. Erekat, the establishment of a Palestinian state “is not a question of if, but of when,” Mr. Indyk said, adding, “The tragedy is that he never reached“ when ”.

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