Since the Oslo Accords took off in 1993, Palestinians have been led by Presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, as well as five prime ministers. But only one person has held on to the title of Chief Palestinian Negotiator for most of the past two decades: Dr. Saeb Erekat.
Erekat himself is far from unchanged. He began his career as a portly and bearded young academic, and grew into a slim and clean-shaven politician – a virtual embodiment of the PLO, which has had to tighten its belt as donor funding dwindled in favor of more urgent problems in the Arab world. To his fans, Erekat is perhaps the most eloquent of Palestinian spokesmen, able to spin out well-phrased condemnations of Israel in the blink of sound bite. To his critics, he is prone to exaggeration and plays loose with the facts, sometimes throwing fuel into the fire.
But Erekat has weathered the ups and downs in Palestinian politics and the peace process because - as he put it to former US negotiator Aaron David Miller in an interview with Foreign Policy earlier this year - he is not so much pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli as he is pro-peace.
“We don't see any other solution than a two-state solution,” he said. “Any Israeli government that recognizes this fact and respects what previous governments have agreed upon should become a partner for peace.”
But, he added in the February 2013 interview, such an outcome would require political will. “So far, Israel's will is about colonization, and the international community has failed to put an end to decades of double standards by treating Israel as a state above the law,” he said.
Erekat was born into a family of seven children in the village of Abu Dis near East Jerusalem – in what was then Jordan – and followed an older brother to the United States to study at San Francisco State University. There he earned both a B.A. and an M.A., then moved on to the United Kingdom to completea doctorate in international relations at the University of Bradford. He came home to join the staff of An-Najah University, where he created a stir in 1982 after writing an op-ed in the Al-Quds newspaper calling for dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics. Nearly a decade later, Erekat was named deputy head of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference.
While the Olso Accords turned the Madrid Conference down to yesterday’s news, Erekat remained one of the only “inside” Palestinians who found a place in Arafat’s inner circle; most of the other players were Palestinians from “outside,” who returned with Arafat in 1994 from other countries, most notably Tunisia.
Erekat set up shop in Jericho and for a time served as the Minister of Local Government, but it became clear that every time substantive negotiations took place, he was the pivotal man on hand. When negotiations broke down or failed to materialize, Erekat proved adept at explaining to international journalists who, in his eyes, were to blame.
Erekat’s tendency for hyperbole got him into trouble in 2002 following the deadly IDF operation in Jenin, which Israeli officials called a "battle" and the Palestinians referred to as a "massacre". At the height of the controversy, Erekat insisted in a CNN interview that investigators would find that at least 500 Palestinians had been killed. In the end, the total Palestinian death toll was put at a tenth of Erekat's estimate: The number confirmed by Human Rights Watch was 52, and by the IDF, 53.
More recently, when the 2011 “Palestine Papers” were released and covered extensively by Al-Jazeera, Erekat said that the mega-leak had “endangered” his life. "Today what is being practiced against us [by the Al-Jazeera coverage] is that we are guilty, we should be executed, and then after our execution, we should be given an unfair trial," he said in an interview with the BBC.
Among other controversies stirred by the release, the papers outlined concessions that Erekat, as the head of the PLO negotiations unit, was apparently prepared to reach a peace deal with Israel. These concession included allowing Israel to annex all but one of the Jewish neighborhoods Israel has built in East Jerusalem, over the Green Line; turning control of the entire Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary over to an international committee; and restricting the number of Palestinian refugees allowed to return to 100,000 over the course of 10 years.
Erekat has also frequently mentioned land swaps – Israel annexing some of the most populated settlement but giving Palestinians equivalent-sized tracts of land inside the Green Line – as a basis for an agreement.
Ten years ago, even at the height of the Second Intifada, Erekat told his alumni magazine in San Fransisco that he still believed that the Israelis and Palestinians would one day reconcile and live side-by-side. "I think Palestinians and Israelis are destined to live in peace,” he said. “I think one day the occupation will end and the Israelis will stop being our occupiers and become our neighbors and there’ll be a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. That’s what I commit my life to achieve."
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