JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Saeb Erekat, one of the most experienced and high-profile advocates for the Palestinian cause over decades of dispute with Israel, died on Tuesday after contracting COVID-19. He was 65.
Having sat down with Israeli and U.S. leaders in the 1990s and 2000s, in recent years Erekat was the principal face of a war of words with President Donald Trump’s administration over a Middle East plan that envisaged leaving Israel in control of Jewish settlements and large parts of the occupied West Bank.
But after peace talks collapsed in 2014 he remained a firm backer of the negotiated creation of a future Palestinian state co-existing alongside Israel even if, in his own words, it took 50 years.
Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on Oct. 8 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 following multiple organ failure after being hospitalised for three weeks in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, a spokeswoman for the Israeli hospital said. He had required ventilation and specialised drug treatment, she added.
“Saeb has shown an extraordinary patience and resilience, with the same determination that has characterized his career to achieve freedom for Palestine and a just and lasting peace in our region,” his daughter Dalal posted on Twitter.
His funeral is expected to be held on Wednesday in the West Bank city of Jericho.
Fluent in English as well as his native Arabic, Erekat was a spokesman for Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, though never a serious candidate to succeed them.
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.
Abbas declared three days of mourning, calling his death “a big loss for Palestine and our people”.
“We feel deep sorrow for losing him, especially at such difficult times the Palestinian cause is living through,” Abbas’ office in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank said.
Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister, said he had dedicated his life to his people. “Reaching peace is my destiny he used to say. Being sick, he texted me: ‘I’m not finished with what I was born to do’. My deepest condolences to the Palestinians and his family. He will be missed,” she wrote on Twitter.
Well-known in diplomatic circles across the world, he regularly featured in the international media.
But a younger generation of Palestinians disillusioned with a long-stagnant peace process increasingly questioned whether Erekat’s favoured vision of a two-state solution was even possible any more.
Some instead advocated a “one-state solution” of Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side with equal rights, in a single country.
But having sat opposite Israeli leaders, Erekat regarded the one-state concept as unworkable, aware that Israel would reject it as a demographic liability undermining its ability to be both a Jewish and a democratic state. He maintained a two-state outcome was the solution.
“If not this year, in five years, 10 years, 50 years. But the unfortunate thing is the longer it takes, the more victims, the more people will be killed, the more violence, the more extremism. Saving lives is about going the path of two states, and it is doable,” he told Reuters in July 2019.
JERICHO TO CAMP DAVID
When he 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 captured the territory along with the rest of the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.
He 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 U.S. 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 U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000.
But those talks failed and the second Palestinian uprising broke out three months later, leading to five years of bloodshed and marginalising 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 militant 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.
With Israel in control of East Jerusalem and Hamas in Gaza, Fatah was left with just limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, among scores of Israeli settlements.
The Palestinians also 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 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 diplomatic deals with Israel, reflecting shared fears of Iran and hopes of increased trade.
Asked a year before his death if there was a danger of the middle ground of Palestinian politics disappearing, Erekat told Reuters: “It’s happening. These are my sons and daughters and grandchildren. And they look at me in the eye and they say, ‘You did not deliver. Let the struggle change’.”
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Angus MacSwan and Alison Williams)