Saeb Erekat: Palestinian politician who believed talk was the way to a deal

Shatha Hammad

Middle East Eye  /  November 10, 2020

Once the face of the Oslo Accords, in later years Erekat became a negotiator without any negotiations to attend.

Saeb Erekat, who died at 65 on Tuesday after contracting Covid-19, was one of the best-known Palestinian political figures during the last three decades.

Once the face of the Oslo Accords, the ultimately failed attempt to forge a permanent peace deal with Israel and establish an independent Palestinian state, Erekat held the title of chief Palestinian negotiator since the early 1990s, when he became involved in the early rounds of talks.

As one of the most vocal members of the Palestinian leadership, he leaves behind a controversial political legacy, with his goal of achieving an independent, sovereign Palestinian state through political negotiations unfulfilled.

Between Palestine and the US

Born in 1955 in the town of Abu Dis near Jerusalem, Erekat was the son of Mohammad Saleh Erekat, a Palestinian businessman, who had lived in the United States for many years. Educated in Jericho in the occupied West Bank, he later travelled to San Francisco to complete his studies, obtaining a BA and then an MA there in political science during the 1970s: later he was granted US citizenship.

It was while completing a PhD in peace studies at the University of Bradford in northern England in 1983 that Erekat formed many of his political ideas, including the conclusion that the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli could only be resolved through negotiations.

In between his MA and doctorate, Erekat returned to Palestine and began working as a lecturer at the Al-Najah University in Nablus, the largest Palestinian university, a position he held between 1982 and 1986. He also worked for more than a decade as a journalist and editorial board member for the Palestinian daily newspaper al-Quds until 1994. 

Erekat was detained by Israeli forces on several occasions in his younger years – the first time at age 13 following a confrontation with Israeli soldiers. He was later arrested after opening a programme bringing students from Haifa University to Al-Najah in 1983, and placed under house arrest on several occasions during the early years of the First Intifada.

Erekat began his career in political negotiation in 1991 as deputy head of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid Peace Conference, which marked the first face-to-face conference between Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian representatives, and is believed to have paved the way for the Oslo Accords a few years later.

He continued as a member of the delegation throughout 1992 and 1993, until he was appointed head in 1994.

In 1995, Erekat then became the chief Palestinian negotiator during the Oslo Accord talks, which led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), with the stated aim of leading to the creation of an independent state by 2000 – a goal that, 20 years after the stated deadline, has yet to materialise.

Erekat has repeatedly faulted Israel for destroying the two-state solution and not abiding by the Oslo Accords.

“Successive Israeli governments have worked to destroy the agreement, especially the current government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the most right-wing of them,” he said on the accord’s 27th anniversary.

By 1996, Erekat was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to represent Jericho, where he lived until his death.

Erekat was the minister for local governance in the first government formed by the PA, led by then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Despite their differences on several political issues, Erekat was considered one of Arafat’s loyalists during the 2000 Camp David negotiations between Egypt and Israel and those that followed in Taba, Egypt, between the PA and Israel in 2001. The Taba Summit was terminated ahead of Israeli elections, and never restarted under hawkish new premier Ariel Sharon.

Due to his proximity to Arafat, Erekat was reappointed in 2003 as minister of negotiations under then-PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei in the emergency cabinet formed after Mahmoud Abbas resigned as prime minister.

In 2009, Abbas –  now president of the PA after Arafat’s death in 2004 – appointed Erekat as head of the Palestinian negotiating delegation. That same year, he was also elected as a member of the Central Committee of Fatah, the political movement’s highest leadership body: he was also chosen by Fatah consensus at the end of 2009 as a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The Palestine papers

In February 2011, Erekat briefly resigned as head of the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit after Al Jazeera published leaked internal Israeli-Palestinian negotiations documents known as the Palestine Papers.

The 1,600 documents included memos, emails, minutes from private meetings, accounts of high level exchanges, maps and power-point presentations, dating from 1999 to 2010 mainly originating from the PLO’s negotiation support unit.

The documents revealed significant concessions made by the PA on key issues such as the fate of Palestinian refugees, including that the PA had agreed that only a very small number of refugees displaced during the Nakba would be allowed to return to Palestine. 

The PA leadership also allegedly accepted major compromises on land as well as Israel’s withdrawal from occupied East Jerusalem. The papers also included leaked information on how the PA’s security units had coordinated with Israeli forces in the killing and arrest of Palestinians who engaged in armed resistance against the occupation. 

The revelations caused outrage among the Palestinian public over their leadership’s yielding on what were widely seen as the most important issues related to the Palestinian cause.

In a heated exchange with al-Jazeera following the leaks, Erekat vehemently rejected accusations that he had neglected key issues, particularly the refugee file. During the interview, he produced documents which he said contradicted what was in the Al Jazeera files, and framed the Palestine Papers as a plot to overthrow Abbas.

At the time Erekat said in a statement: “What should be taken from these documents is that Palestinian negotiators have consistently come to the table in complete seriousness and in good faith, and that we have only been met by rejection on the other end.”

Erekat quickly retracted his resignation and returned to his post. He submitted his resignation again in October 2013 during negotiations with Israel under US auspices, but Abbas refused to accept his resignation and asked him to continue his mission – which Erekat did. 

Despite the halt in negotiations between the PA and Israel since 2014, Erekat held on to his long-standing position that negotiations were the most suitable path for a solution, and that diplomacy, not armed struggle, was the way forward.

“The shortest way to security, peace and stability is to freeze the Israeli occupation quagmire through negotiations that lead to a complete Israeli withdrawal under international supervision, and specific security arrangements in the presence of a third party,” Erekat said in 2011, a position he maintained until the end.

Throughout his work, Erekat repeatedly placed the blame on Israel for the failure of negotiations, citing its continued policy of settlement expansion – as one main precondition for Palestine to resume talks was that Israel halt the strategy, which is illegal under international law.

Against the ‘deal of the century’

In January 2020, US President Donald Trump fully unveiled his proposal – which has been colloquially described as the “deal of the century” – for Palestine and Israel, despite Palestinian leadership having refused to participate in the process. 

Presented by an American administration staunchly supportive of Israel, Erekat regarded the plan as Washington dictating a deal to Palestinians while excluding the PA and others from any negotiations or hope of future self-determination. 

In a book entitled The Palestinians and Confronting the Deal of the Century published by the Arab Thinking Forum compiling thoughts from several Palestinian figures, Erekat suggested how both “deal” and Israel’s policy of annexing Palestinian land in violation of international law could both be thwarted through self-reliance and not seeking support from Arab or international parties. 

Erekat’s vision was based on seven pillars, namely: reconciliation between Palestinian parties; approving the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people; strengthening the steadfastness of the Palestinians on their land; electing a Palestinian National Council representative of all the Palestinian people; referring any dispute to the ballot box; consolidating the principle of prohibition on internal fighting; and, finally, relying on international legitimacy and laws, including the United Nations’ decision to admit Palestine as a “non-member observer state,” which happened in 2012.

In September 2020, Erekat rejected the Trump-sponsored agreements that Israel signed with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, believing that that the main goal of the deals was to establish new military alliances in the region in Israel’s favour.

“Palestine has become a victim of the electoral ambitions of President Trump, whose team would take any action, no matter how destructive for peace and a rules-based world order, to achieve his re-election,” he said in a tweet. “This, just like the UAE-Israel agreement, isn’t about Middle East peace.”

Erekat had warned that the deals between Israel and the two Gulf states were signs of a radical change in the political system in the Arab world, which he considered a “poisonous stab in the back of the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause”.

A noted author, Erekat published a series of books between 2008 and 2018 on his experience of political negotiations, including detailed accounts on the correspondences, negotiations and meetings that took place during Israel’s siege of Arafat at the PA headquarters between 2002 and 2004 amid the Second Intifada.

He contracted the novel coronavirus in early October. His condition quickly deteriorated: he had suffered from lung fibrosis since 2012, and received a lung transplant in the United States in 2017.

Erekat is survived by his wife Niemeh, twin daughters, Salam and Dalal, and two sons, Ali and Mohammad.

Shatha Hammad is a Palestinian freelance journalist; in June 2020 she won the New Voice award at the One World Media Awards for her reporting from the West Bank