Veteran Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat Dies After Contracting COVID-19
Saeb Erekat, one of the most experienced and prominent spokesmen for the Palestinian cause over decades of dispute with Israel, died on Tuesday after contracting COVID-19, his family said. He was 65.
“With hearts full of sorrow and pain, and with patience, Erekat’s clan everywhere mourns to the Palestinian Arab people and to the Arab and Muslim nation Saeb Erekat,” his extended family clan posted on Facebook.
Fluent in English as well as his native Arabic, he was a high-profile spokesman for Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, though never a serious candidate to succeed them.
Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), confirmed on Oct. 8 that he had contracted the coronavirus. Three years earlier he had undergone a lung transplant in the United States that left his immune system compromised.
He died after being hospitalized for weeks in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center. The family said he had died from “complications resulting from contracting coronavirus.”
One of the youngest members of the Palestinian leadership, Erekat was unusual in not having spent decades in exile with Arafat and Abbas, the older generation of his Fatah faction, which dominates the PLO.
Although well known in diplomatic circles across the world and regularly featured in the international media, he was on the second tier of Palestinian politics and diplomacy.
Jericho to Camp David
When Erekat was born in 1955, his family was living in Abu Dis, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. When he was young, they moved to Jericho in the Jordan Valley, and he was 12 when Israel took control of the territory along with the rest of the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Erekat left the West Bank in the 1970s to go to college.
After studying political science and international relations at San Francisco State University and gaining a doctorate in peace studies at Bradford in Britain, he worked as a lecturer in the West Bank city of Nablus before becoming a journalist.
Erekat first gained international recognition in 1991 when he was appointed vice-chair of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Madrid Peace Conference during the US presidency of George H.W. Bush.
After Arafat returned from exile in the mid-1990s following interim peace agreements, Erekat oversaw preparations for elections under the newly-created Palestinian Authority, and was himself elected to parliament.
He became increasingly prominent as a negotiator, taking part in the Camp David summit hosted by US President Bill Clinton in 2000.
But those talks failed and the Second Intifada broke out three months later, leading to five years of bloodshed and marginalizing advocates of a negotiated two-state solution.
In 2006, Erekat’s Fatah faction was weakened when it lost elections to its increasingly-powerful domestic rival, the Islamist group Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel.
A year later, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force, dealing a further blow to Fatah’s credibility.
Externally, the Palestinians found themselves increasingly isolated after Israeli voters from 2009 elected successive right-wing governments headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — long a critic of the Palestinian leadership.
Another challenge came with the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 — a year later the Palestinians stopped dealing with Trump, accusing him of pro-Israel bias.
In the last three months of Erekat’s life, the Palestinians faced shifting regional priorities when two Gulf Arab states suddenly signed normalization deals with Israel, reflecting shared fears of Iran and hopes of increased trade.
In an interview with Reuters a year before his death, Erekat was adamant that the vision of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ultimately prevail.
“There is no other option,” he asserted.