Obituary: Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator and statesman

Obituary: Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator and statesman
After a career in politics spanning decades, Saeb Erekat did not see the two-state solution he had fought for as chief negotiator.
3 min read
10 November, 2020
Saeb Erekat contracted the novel coronavirus in October [Getty]

Top Palestinian negotiator and statesman Saeb Erekat died aged-65 on Tuesday from complications caused by Covid-19, leaving a legacy of decades at the helm of frustrated efforts to negotiate a two-state solution to end the conflict with Israel.

Born Saeb Muhammad Salih Erekat, in the West Bank village of Abu Dis on April 22 1955, he was the son of a bus company owner whose business was wiped out once the West Bank fell to Israel during the 1967 War.

Erekat was just 12-years-old when Israeli tanks rolled into Jericho, where his family had moved to.

"There was no such thing as insurance against wars, so my father lost everything," told the San Francisco State University's magazine in 2003. 

He would later leave his homeland to study in the US, obtaining a Bachelor's degree in International Relations in 1977 and a Master's degree in the same field in 1979.

He went on to complete a PhD in Conflict Resolution at Bradford University in the UK.

In a career decades-long career among the Palestinian, Erekat became one of the most recognisable faces in the Palestinian struggle for statehood, setting it down a very different route towards peace with Israel than many had wished.

He worked with all Israeli leaders over the past three decades, as well as under the current Palestinian Authority head, Mahmoud Abbas, and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

For a time, Erekat was also considered as a possible candidate to take over as presidency of the PA.

He was appointed chief negotiator for the Palestinians in 1995 - a role he resigned from and returned to on more than one occasion.

A firm backer of a two-state solution, Erekat was chided by Palestinians for allegedly conceding too much to the Israelis. This criticism only grew stronger as the optimism of the Oslo Accords of the 90s began to fade, particularly during the sharp rightwards shift in Israeli politics under Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2011, Erekat would once again resign as chief negotiator after the publication of the 'Palestine Papers' - leaked documents which revealed confidential communications between Palestinian, Israeli and American leaders between 2000 and 2010.

Crucially, the leak revealed the significant concessions offered by Palestinian negotiators to Israel without guarantees from Tel Aviv on key issues.

Erekat was quoted in the papers as saying that he offered the Israelis "the biggest Yerushalayim [Hebrew for Jerusalem] in history" -  a move which would have permitted the annexation of all major Israeli settlements in the West Bank, except for one in East Jerusalem.

In recent years, Erekat voiced his opposition to the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, slamming Arab and Muslim leaders for their apparent inaction over continued Israeli infringements.

"Where are the Arab and Islamic countries?" Erekat tweeted in September. "Isn't that a good question to those who say they're concerned for Palestine?"

Erekat contracted the novel coroanvirus in October and was later hospitalised with the illness. The condition was complicated by the senior negotiator's pre-existing health conditions, including from a lung transplant in 2017.

He is survived by his wife, Naama, and four children.