Saeb Erekat, who died Tuesday at age 65 of Covid-19 complications, was the Palestinian veteran negotiator and politician who shepherded relations with world powers for decades.
In the absence of talks with Israel in recent years, which saw the collapse of the Palestinian-US relationship during Donald Trump’s presidency, Erekat remained an eloquent voice for his people’s cause.
A Western-educated academic and author whose perfect English was often spiced with humour, Erekat was part of every team to negotiate with Israel since 1991, with the exception of that which secretly hammered out the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas honoured him Tuesday, stating that “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”.
Born in Jerusalem in 1955, and having gown up in the shadow of Israel’s crushing victory over its Arab neighbours in the 1967 Six-Day War, Erekat, a father of four, dedicated much of his life to seeking a resolution to the crisis.
But he watched despairingly as the two-state solution that he worked for so long became increasingly imperilled in the face of Israeli settlement building, sporadic violence, stalled peace efforts and Palestinian divisions.
In 2015, as a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks erupted, Erekat blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies for the violence.
“I condemn those who destroy hope,” Erekat told AFP at the time, when asked if he saw a need to condemn the Palestinian attacks.
“I condemn those who chose settlements and dictation rather than peace and negotiations. And I told you I don’t condone the killing of civilians… Israelis or Palestinians.
“I’m a man of peace. I want to make peace. I recognise Israel’s right to exist.“
Erekat, a member of the Palestinian parliament since 1996, was close to Yasser Arafat, the historic leader of the Palestinian national movement.
He became a key figure in the Palestinian political landscape, an indispensable briefer for foreign envoys and a suave tactician who could register indignation when necessary.
In recent years, he served as secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and was a stalwart presence in the inner circle of Abbas.
A heavyset man always dressed in a suit, he was a key interlocutor with foreign officials as well as a prominent Palestinian voice on social media.
He was one of the loudest critics of Israel’s policy to not return bodies of Palestinians killed during attacks on Israelis, especially after his own nephew was shot dead at a West Bank checkpoint in June.
During his decades of serving the Palestinian cause, Erekat took part in the failed Camp David summit in July 2000, and the September 2010 talks in Washington, which stopped in a row over Israel’s settlement building.
He was also chief negotiator in 2014 when then US president Barack Obama tried to restart peace efforts.
Appointed in 2003 to head the PLO negotiating team, Erekat briefly resigned from the post in 2011 because of “responsibility for the theft of documents from his office“, papers which he said had been “adulterated“.
He was referring to more than 1,600 documents on the talks with Israel between 1999 and 2010, released in January 2011 by Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera and dubbed “The Palestine Papers”.
Palestinian officials worked to limit the damage caused by their publication, which showed Palestinian negotiators prepared to offer significant concessions without securing Israeli guarantees on key issues such as east Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.
Although the documents did not cause major turmoil in Palestinian public opinion, Erekat’s position was weakened at the time by announcements the alleged perpetrators of the leaks worked for the PLO negotiating team he headed.
A former journalist with the independent daily Al-Quds in east Jerusalem, Erekat held a BA and an MA in political science from the University of San Francisco.
He also held a doctorate in peace studies from the University of Bradford in England, and taught at An-Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus from 1979 to 1991.
Erekat wrote a dozen books and lived in the West Bank oasis town of Jericho.
After several years of battling pulmonary fibrosis, Erekat underwent a lung transplant in the US in 2017.
On October 9, the PLO announced he had contracted Covid-19, and on October 18 he was admitted to Israel’s Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, where he died Tuesday.