Hardliner and Peace-seeker: The Puzzle of Saeb Erekat, 1955-2020

Saeb Erekat was respected and reviled for his years as chief Palestinian negotiator: sometimes acid-tongued, always a proud Palestinian nationalist, who refused to boycott Israelis and who kept the faith of a two state solution

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Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat talks to demonstrators outside the Palestinian Authority presidential compound in Ramallah during a visit by U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan. March 14, 2005.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat talks to demonstrators outside the Palestinian Authority presidential compound in Ramallah during a visit by U.N Secretary-General Kofi Annan. March 14, 2005.Credit: Enric Marti,AP

Saeb Erakat’s death on Tuesday, like much of his life as Chief Palestinian Negotiator and Secretary General of the PLO, was sadly engulfed in controversy.  

Reviled by some for his efforts to paint Israel as an incipient apartheid state and to condemn and isolate it in international forums, he was nevertheless respected and appreciated by many of the Israelis and Americans who negotiated with him for his devotion to Israeli-Palestinian peace. 

Erakat’s commitment to a negotiated outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was evident from the moment he appeared on the international scene as part of the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, famously wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh around his shoulders.  

Saeb was a proud Palestinian nationalist, but he also prided himself on being a professional negotiator. He assembled a team of smart young Palestinian lawyers and experts to advise him, and he became the repository of the many agreements and understandings that marked the Oslo period of Israel-Palestinian negotiations. In this way, he made himself indispensable.  

In his role as negotiator, he frustrated all of his interlocutors, because he seemed so inflexible on Palestinian requirements. That was because he was supremely conscious of the fact that the Israelis held the high cards and he had few of his own to play. He also had no popular base of support that could provide him the security to make concessions without being accused of selling out by his many rivals.  

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stands with his Local Affairs Minister Saeb Erakat during a press conference with the Norwegian prime minister in Oslo. November 1, 1999.Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP

But his biggest constraint was that Yasser Arafat, and later Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), never gave him the leeway. His role was to play the hardliner in the formal negotiations, so that they could claim to their public that they were doggedly defending Palestinian rights. 

Meanwhile they used disavowable, secret backchannel negotiations with Israel to indicate their flexibility and explore creative compromises. The Oslo talks, the Beilin-Abu Mazen negotiations, and the London backchannel during the Kerry-run final status negotiations were all carried out behind Saeb Erakat’s back. This created a structural dysfunction on the Palestinian side which more often than not helped to generate failure.  

Saeb was unfazed by the humiliation he suffered, because he knew that if agreement were ever reached in the backchannel it would have to be fed into his front-facing channel to be formalized. In this way, he was able to play critical roles in the completion of the 1995 Oslo II Agreement and the 1998 Wye Agreement, which produced Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian control over 40 percent of the West Bank and 90 percent of its Palestinian residents.

That is where the process of gaining territory through negotiations ended, 22 years ago. Try as he might, Saeb did not have it in his power to overcome the erosion of trust generated by violence, terrorism and settlement growth that made progress impossible. 

But he never gave up. Quietly, over time, he tried to fashion compromises for all the outstanding issues: a demilitarized Palestinian state to provide for Israeli security, land swaps to accommodate the settlement blocs, refugee resettlement and compensation to assuage Israeli concerns about the right of return, and shared sovereignty in Jerusalem as an open city. 

When Netanyahu added a new requirement of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinian leadership rejected it, Saeb hinted to me that it could be accepted at the end of the negotiations if all other Palestinian requirements were met.  

All this took considerable courage. He was exposed to harsh criticism from Palestinians when negotiations stalled and his negotiating positions leaked.

Abbas, listening to Saeb Erekat, April 9, 2014.Credit: AP

But, unlike Arafat and others, he refused to advocate violence to try to increase the pressure on Israel or deflect the disparagement. He opposed the intifada, viewed Hamas as his enemy, and brought up his children to believe in coexistence. Throughout it all, he never wavered from his belief in the two-state solution and his conviction that it could only be achieved through negotiations.  

He did not adhere to the Palestinian ban on engagement with Israelis. Instead, he tried to reach out to Israelis and explain to them bluntly the realities of life under occupation. He did not speak Hebrew but he never tired of repeating the mantra Ehad Teisha Sheish Sheva to remind Israelis of the 1967 lines that he insisted on as the basis for defining the borders of the Palestinian state. And as relations deteriorated and Netanyahu systematically denigrated Abu Mazen, Saeb struck back with his sharp and acid tongue. 

Nevertheless, he earned the respect of the Israelis who dealt with him, even Prime Minister Netanyahu. When Saeb needed a lung transplant to save his life, Netanyahu encouraged him to have the complicated surgery in Israel, in spite of the furor generated by some Israelis.

Saeb would have liked nothing better. He trusted his Israeli doctors and he told me that a Jewish lung keeping him alive would have served as a metaphor for the coexistence that he sought. But he didn’t want to embarrass his potential hosts, so he had the operation in the United States.   

Such were the personal relationships with Israelis that when President Rivlin’s wife Nehama was dying from the same lung disease that afflicted Saeb, the President sought his help to persuade her to have the transplant operation. Saeb brought flowers and chocolates to the hospital.  

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat holds a map as he speaks to media about an Israeli plan to appropriate land, Jericho, West Bank, January 20, 2016.Credit: REUTERS

So when he contracted COVID-19, Saeb naturally chose to be treated at Hadassah Hospital, notwithstanding Palestinian criticism and Israeli protests, and even though King Abdullah had sent his helicopter to ferry him to hospital in Amman.     

After his death, a Netanyahu spokesman expressed admiration for him as "a formidable sparring partner" who knew how to deliver the message on behalf of the Palestinian people. Likud Member of Knesset Tzahi Hanegbi, and former Chief Negotiator Tzipi Livni said they were both "saddened by the news." And former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hailed Erakat as "a man of peace, a man of honor." 

Sadly, as the prospect of a viable two-state solution slipped further from his grasp during the Trump era, Saeb struggled with the reality that his vision of peace would not be achieved in his lifetime. In our last conversation, over lunch in Ramallah in January, he held onto the hope that Trump would be defeated and perhaps his chance would come again. 

I wish I had told him then about the counsel of the Jewish sages (in Ethics of the Fathers) that, "It is not up to you to finish the job, but neither can you desist from it." That is a fitting epitaph for a Palestinian nationalist who had the courage to pursue peace with Israel.  

Martin Indyk is a Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations. He is a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and former U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. Twitter: @martin_indyk