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Saeb Erekat: leaving unfinished business

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Veteran Palestinian negotiator and politician, Saeb Erekat, died on Tuesday at the age of 65, weeks after testing positive for COVID-19.

I first met Erekat about 20 years ago. He was approachable and affable. In the ensuing years, he would always answer his cell phone when I called, and never declined the occasional comment or interview I’d reach out for.

For journalists, he was the ultimate spokesperson – always available and among the first Palestinian officials to comment on anything related to the conflict. In this way, he became one of the most well-known Palestinian figures to Western audiences.

The author of at least eight books and a Western-educated academic, Erekat always dressed in a suit and spoke perfect English. He was one of the most experienced and high-profile advocates for the Palestinian cause, and was part of every Palestinian team to negotiate with Israel since 1991 – with the exception of the secretly hammered out 1993 Oslo Accords.

He was deputy head of the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid talks convened by then United States President George Bush – the first time Israeli government officials negotiated directly with their Palestinian counterparts, albeit in a multilateral setting.

By the time direct talks between the sides were taking place in 1993, he was chief Palestinian negotiator. Aside from a few absences, he stayed in that position throughout his life. He announced his resignation multiple times, but never left the job.

I once shared a joke with a colleague. We agreed that to be a negotiator for three decades either meant Erekat wasn’t very good at his position or it was an impossible mission. One thing was certain, though, and that was that he didn’t have to worry about looking for other work as talks between the sides, until today, remain stalled.

Erekat was an ardent supporter of the two-state solution, and blamed in particular Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for scuppering peace efforts. But his public positions also reflected those of his leadership and thus “evolved over the years”, reflected Alan Baker, the former legal advisor to the Israeli foreign ministry.

“I had an ongoing argument with him on Twitter that there was never anything even like 1967 borders. All these issues he negotiated with us, and together with us drafted [agreements] and recently, [he] said Israel has to withdraw from all territories to 1967. This wasn’t agreed to in the Oslo Accords, so it reflects a change, an evolving position of the Palestinian leadership.”

Erekat was active on Twitter in the past few months, describing this year’s agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain as a “poisonous Arab dagger in my back”.

He argued that Palestine first needed to be formally recognised before such relations could be established. This placed him on a collision course with the Arab League and many people in the Gulf states, especially after he talked about the emergence of “Zionist Arabs”.

He visited South Africa in 2014 to receive the Global Champion for the People’s Freedom Award from the Mkiva Humanitarian Foundation. While here, he lobbied for support for a United Nations draft resolution calling for the immediate resumption of talks between the sides.

What does his passing mean for the future of the Palestinians? In truth, very little. He was a loyal aide and translator to the former chairperson of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat; general secretary of the PLO; and aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But he was never a serious candidate to replace them.

The Jerusalem Post reports that in private conversations he would ask friends and journalists whether they thought he was qualified to become the next leader of the Palestinians. But Erekat’s chances of succeeding Abbas suffered a major setback when he underwent a lung transplant in the US three years ago. Since then, his health forced him to limit his activities. He also never publicly put himself forward as a contender.

Last month, he was rushed to the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem from his home in Jericho in the West Bank. The hospital said that treating him was extremely complicated because of his history of medical problems. Many Israelis pointed to the irony of him being in an Israeli hospital when he was so critical of Jerusalem and its policies.

Erekat wasn’t particularly popular among Israelis. They castigated him for campaigning to sue Israel for war crimes in the International Criminal Court, and for accusing the country of carrying out a massacre in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, an allegation that turned out to be unfounded. But he had warm relations with politicians like Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister and a negotiating partner. She said he recently messaged her saying, “I’m not finished what I was born to do.”

It’s unlikely that Erekat’s departure from the Palestinian political arena will herald anything new. The Palestinians may have lost one of their most experienced negotiators, but young Palestinians, in particular, are disillusioned with their leadership. They feel it’s out of touch and Erekat, in spite of being one of its younger members, didn’t bring anything new to the table.

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