“Fatah mourns its great national son, Dr. Saeb Erekat,” a social media post by his party Fatah read.
He was taken to Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center in a serious condition on October 18.
One of the most prominent Palestinian politicians of the last few decades, Erekat was a major part of negotiations between the Palestinian officials and Israel during intensive peace process negotiations in the 1990s.
He served as deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991, as the administration of President George H.W. Bush pushed forward efforts to advance a resolution to the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict.
Erekat famously showed up wearing a black and white keffiyeh, a Palestinian national symbol, seen as an act of defiance against Israel, which refused at the time to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The reluctant Israeli negotiating team in Madrid considered him a hard-liner whose appointment alone could scuttle the talks.
But the Israelis would meet him again and again in successive negotiations. As the two sides tried to build on the breakthrough Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s, Erekat became the chief Palestinian negotiator, a position he would hold on-and-off until his passing.
He became a familiar face on news broadcasts, with a familiar message. Speaking on CNN in 2001, opposite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman, he said, “Please, let us stop scoring points, let us stop finger-pointing. Let us go to sanity, wisdom and courage and come back to the negotiating table immediately with no conditions whatsoever, because at the end of the day, we have recognized the state of Israel’s existence. It is up to you to take the high ground and come back to the negotiating table.”
He earned the respect of some Israelis with whom he negotiated, including former Israeli diplomat and negotiator Alon Pinkas, who praised Erekat’s principles while questioning his ability to implement them. “Saeb Erekat has been a man of peace, and a man I trust, and a man that I can respect. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Saeb Erekat does not call the shots. He doesn’t make the decisions.”
Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States and the United Kingdom, Erekat became a member of the Fatah party, and was close to its charismatic founder and leader Yasser Arafat. From Oslo onwards, he advocated direct negotiations towards a two-state solution. Deeply distrustful of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erekat focused most of his criticism in later years on the man who would become Israel’s longest-serving leader.
In 2018, following Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, Erekat said, “His speech further exposes Israel’s systematic denial of our right to exist, to live in freedom and to celebrate our national identity. The reality on the ground in occupied Palestine is a manifestation of what Israel is: A colonial-apartheid state… For the Israeli government, not only the issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees are off the table, but also Palestine’s very existence.”
Erekat believed Netanyahu had no intention of making the concessions necessary for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, a position reinforced by the advent of President Donald Trump. The Trump administration’s plan for Middle East peace required few concessions from the Israelis while demanding sweeping concessions from the Palestinians.
“What we hear about Jerusalem being Israel’s capital, dropping the refugee issue, security, borders, it cannot be called the Deal of the Century,” Erekat told CNN’s Becky Anderson in January. “It is the fraud and the hoax of the century.”
“This is the most unfair game we’ve ever witnessed in international relations,” he added. “Somebody who is trying to determine my future, my aspiration, my tomorrow, my grandchildren’s tomorrow — without even bothering to consult me — because he wants Netanyahu to win the election and he wants to win the election in 2020, that’s the most ridiculous chapter.”
It was a difficult time for Erekat. Diplomats and journalists who met him in the early weeks of 2020 found him emotionally drained, reflecting on a sense of personal failure, sometimes even close to tears as he tried again to argue the Palestinian cause.
Months later, when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced a major reversal of Arab policy, normalizing relations with Israel regardless of the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Erekat found himself and the PLO once more on the outside looking in.
“The UAE and Bahrain are contributing to Trump’s presidential campaign at the expense of the inalienable rights of the people of Palestine,” Erekat posted on his Twitter account.
And yet despite those challenges, Erekat remained to the end a ubiquitous presence in international forums and media, continuing to insist on the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as it seemed to slip further down the priority list of Western nations and the Arab world.
It was the mission with which he would become inextricably linked, despite the dwindling possibility of its imminent realization. But he never relented, seeing no other paths to peace for the millions of Israelis and Palestinians across the region.