In his brief Twitter biography, Saeb Erekat described himself as secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and head of its negotiations affairs department.
Neither the PLO nor its negotiations affairs department have been active or engaging in any negotiations for many years. But Saeb Erekat’s death on Tuesday revived memories of his legacy as the face of the Palestinian negotiations with Israel in the decades-long peace process that failed to achieve either peace or progress in creating a Palestinian state.
Erekat, 65, died of Covid-19 complications at the Israeli Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem. He was transferred there from his home in Jericho on 19 October in a critical condition not helped by a 2017 lung transplant after suffering for years from pulmonary fibrosis.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a three-day period of mourning. In a statement, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said “the departure of a brother and a friend, of the great fighter, Dr Saeb Erekat, is a great loss for Palestine and our people, and we are deeply saddened.”
Erekat spent more than half his life involved in the peace process negotiations, and he was vice-chairman of the Palestinian team at the landmark Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. He showed up wearing the Palestinian kuffeyeh the iconic black and white scarf symbolic of the Palestinian struggle, causing a stir in the conference and hailed as hero back home. Erekat became one of the most prominent faces of the 1993 Oslo Process, which created the PA, gave the Palestinians limited autonomy and initiated two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution that was never realised.
Erekat was born in the village of Abu Dis near Jerusalem in 1955 but lived most of his life in Jericho. He was 12 years old when he was detained by the Israeli occupation army for a year for distributing anti-occupation fliers.
Erekat earned a BA and MA in international relations from San Francisco State University and later completed a PhD at the University of Bradford in the UK, where he focused on conflict resolution. Erekat also held US citizenship.
In interviews, Erekat often spoke about life and his family in Jericho as a way of explaining the impact of the Israeli occupation to foreign viewers and of positioning himself as an ordinary Palestinian. His wit and grasp of colloquial American phrases made him popular with interviewers.
In 2011, leaked documents from the Palestinian negotiation team in the Oslo Process led to a controversy around Erekat and Abbas among other prominent names involved in the negotiations. Erekat was quoted as saying he would be willing to make concessions on East Jerusalem to Israel.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former spokesperson of the PLO who worked with Erekat, said that he believed in the negotiations as the only path that remained open to realise Palestinian rights.
“He was loyal to Abbas – and to [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat – even when the negotiations were going nowhere. He stuck around and took their orders and did what he was instructed to do, even when he differed from Abbas’s opinions,” she said.
Buttu joined the PLO as a legal adviser in 2000 and participated in the peace negotiations before resigning three years later. She faulted the Oslo Process and saw that the negotiations suffered from a structural problem – the Israeli occupier negotiating with the oppressed and occupied Palestinians – that meant they were not going to achieve anything for the Palestinians.
She described Erekat as “a very kind man. He had a decency that ran through him. I don’t know if people saw and appreciated it, but I definitely did.”
“We disagreed on the path of the negotiations, but there was no difference of opinion on what we wanted: we wanted to be free,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
Even when Erekat saw that the negotiations had failed, “he continued to persist, not because he believed in them, but because he saw them as the only path that remained open,” she added.
Before his death, Erekat was vocal in his criticisms of the United Arab Emirates’ and then Bahrain’s normalisation agreements with Israel. Erekat said that forging peace agreements with Israel without first creating a Palestinian state – the entire premise of the peace process – would kill the notion of the two-state solution.
Erekat’s death at this time marks an end to the era of the two-state solution with its land-for-peace vision that has already been on its deathbed for years. But critics say it was the unsuccessful peace process itself that dragged on for two and a half decades that enabled the Gulf monarchies’ pivot towards Israel.
“It wasn’t a question of his failing to achieve things; it was the whole [Oslo] Process that failed. But I don’t question the idea that he wanted to see a better future for the Palestinians,” Buttu said.
Erekat, who joined the PLO at the age of 29 and stayed in it until his death, was the face of the process, even if it was a path chosen by then Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who later succeeded Yasser Arafat as president.
His hospitalisation in an Israeli medical centre in Jerusalem drew criticisms from some Palestinians, who said that the vast majority of the Palestinian population suffers from restricted movement as a result of the Israeli occupation and is denied the health privileges afforded to Palestinian officials like Erekat.
Israel controls what can go into PA-controlled areas, including food, medication and medical equipment. Cancer patients in PA-controlled areas have no access to radiation therapy, which Israel considers to be a security threat.
Israel, as the occupation force, is obliged under international law to provide healthcare for Palestinians, which it refuses to do. “Because of Erekat’s condition, he needed specialised care, and it’s a problem when people criticise him rather than criticise the Israelis who won’t allow Palestinian hospitals to be properly equipped,” Buttu said.
With Erekat’s death, the generation that was part of the Oslo era is now almost gone. It is also marks the death of the peace process, says Buttu. “I don’t see anyone who can say they will be the next Palestinian negotiator.”
Erekat is survived by his wife Naemah and four childrenDalal, Salam,Ali and Mohamed
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly