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Mourning Saeb Erekat: The Indefatigable, Media Savvy Palestinian Peace Negotiator Who Rejected Violence

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Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat gestures during an interview with Reuters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. August 11, 2013. Erekat passed away on Nov 10, 2020 from COVID-19
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat gestures during an interview with Reuters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. August 11, 2013. Erekat passed away on November 10, 2020 from COVID-19.Credit: REUTERS
Daniel Kurtzer
Aaron David Miller
Martin Indyk
Robert Malley, Dennis Ross, Jonathan Schwartz, Toni Verstandig

Together, we mourn the passing of Saeb Erekat and extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife Niemeh and his four children Salam, Dalal, Ali and Muhammed. 

They should be proud of who he was and what he accomplished in his life, through his decades of dedicated involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even though he would not live to see his greatest hope realized – a two state solution in which an independent Palestinian state would live in peace beside a secure Israel. 

Saeb was a unique figure among Palestinian officials and negotiators with whom we dealt. With degrees from U.S. and UK universities, and teaching experience at the West Bank’s An-Najah University, he lacked the PLO diaspora credentials, the political standing, and the street cred of Israeli prison time of many of his colleagues in the Palestinian national movement. 

Indeed, those colleagues often joked at his expense that he was “Mr. CNN” because of his fondness for the media and his passionate presentations before the cameras.  

Saeb Erekat talking to reporters at the Annapolis conference attended by President George W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. November 27, 2007.Credit: AP

And yet, from the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference onward, he would be involved in almost every negotiating effort between Israelis and Palestinians

Saeb’s influence flowed from different sources. Both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas needed a negotiator who could relate to both the Israelis and the Americans as well as the international community and the media; his command of English and his capacity to analyze and draft texts became essential once the negotiations reached that stage. 

No one else on the Palestinian side could play that role. His diligence was remarkable, and he became the most reliable repository of the negotiating record. Sometimes to a fault.

We had our differences because at times he could be inflexible. But then, without an independent base of his own and subject to Arafat’s whims, Saeb had little flexibility to depart from core Palestinian positions, and we often suspected, his bosses did not want him to do so.  

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meets with members of the Palestinian and Israeli delegations, among them Saeb erekat, during the Camp David summit at Camp David, July 12, 2000.Credit: REUTERS

The other reality is that no other Palestinian negotiator was as committed and indefatigable as Saeb in pursuit of a two state solution to be achieved through peaceful means. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry dines with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at the US State Dept in Washington, DC. July 29, 2013.Credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS - AFP

Saeb genuinely believed – even well past the time when many of us had given up hope – that a conflict-ending solution was possible, no matter how bleak the moment. As he confronted his own mortality during his lung transplant in 2018, he told some of us that what kept him alive was his determination to achieve peace. 

This was no talking point. This man deeply believed in dialogue and reconciliation with Israelis, eschewed violence, and lived his life accordingly. He sent his children to Seeds of Peace, a program that fosters coexistence and dialogue, sat on its Advisory Board and spoke on behalf of the organization and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation whenever and wherever he could. 

We mark Saeb’s passing knowing full well that prospects for an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians seem now like a distant dream. Having worked on this issue for years, we have no illusions, and neither did Saeb. But he never abandoned hope that with leadership, courage and determination peace remained possible. 

Saeb Erekat never gave up hope, and to honor him, neither should we. May his memory and good works always be a blessing. 

Martin Indyk, Special Envoy for Israeli- Palestinian negotiations

Daniel Kurtzer, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs

Robert Malley, Former Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, National Security Council

Aaron David Miller, Former Deputy Special Middle East Coordinator

Dennis Ross, Former Special Middle East Coordinator

Jonathan Schwartz, Former Deputy Legal Adviser, Department of State

Toni Verstandig, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs

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