Saeb Erekat, Top Palestinian Peace Negotiator, Dies at 65 After Contracting COVID

PLO Secretary General Saeb Erekat was in charge of all negotiations with Israel since the Oslo Accords. He was close to both Arafat and Abbas, and considered one of the main voices of the Palestinians on the world stage

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
FILE PHOTO: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Ramallah, January 30, 2019.
FILE PHOTO: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Ramallah, January 30, 2019. Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Dr. Saeb Erekat, the lead Palestinian peace negotiator and Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, died Tuesday after contracting the coronavirus last month. He was 65 years old.

Mahmoud Aloul, deputy chairman of the Fatah movement, said that Erekat's funeral will begin Wednesday morning in Ramallah with an hour-long military ceremony in Mukata to be attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and senior Palestinian leadership, at which Erekat’s coffin will be on display. From there, the procession will travel to Jericho for prayer and Erekat’s body will be laid to rest in a full military burial ceremony.

Erekat participated in every round of negotiations held between the Palestinian and Israeli governments since the tenure of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In recent years, Erekat, a veteran Palestinian statesman, focused mainly on holding talks with Arab and foreign representatives who visited Ramallah. He also accompanied President Abbas on his trips around the world. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, he did not leave the West Bank, and split his time between Ramallah and Jericho, where he lived with his wife and children.

In the weeks leading up to his death in an Israeli hospital, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had normalized ties with Israel, breaking with the long-held Arab position that a deal on Palestinian statehood must precede normalization.

With Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at Camp David, 2000Credit: REUTERS

Erekat had tested positive for the coronavirus at the beginning of October. Later in the month, he said he was suffering from “difficult” symptoms, but that things were “under control.” He was taken to the hospital after his condition deteriorated, and after a day, the Hadassah Medical Center said that his condition had worsened, and was deemed critical. He was anesthetized and put on a ventilator.

Erekat died of multiple organ failure at the intensive care unit, said the Jerusalem hospital on Tuesday. The hospital offered condolences to Erekat’s family, loved ones and the Palestinian people.

In 2017, Erekat underwent a lung transplant in the U.S.. He suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and his condition had deteriorated that year. After recovering from the surgery, Erekat resumed almost full activity.

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Erekat was born on April 28, 1955, in the Abu Dis neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and was the sixth of seven children. He is survived by his wife and four children.

Dennis Ross, center, looks on as Saeb Erekat, left, chief Palestinian negotiator, and Dan Shomron, chief Israeli negotiator, initial the documents about Israeli troop redeployment in Hebron, 1997.Credit: Reuters Photographer/ REUTERS

At 17, Erekat began his studies at San Francisco State University in California, where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science. He earned a Ph.D. in peace and conflict studies at Bradford University in England.

After receiving his doctorate, Erekat returned to the West Bank and taught at Al-Najah National University in Nablus. He also worked as a journalist, including at the Al-Quds daily newspaper.

In 1991, Erekat was appointed as the deputy to Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, the head of the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace conference. He later conducted negotiations in Washington and in 1994 he was appointed chairman of the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel.

He remained in charge of the negotiations with Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure, first under the auspices of then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and later handled communication with the Trump administration, participating in every meeting with U.S. President and his advisers, Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner.

Erekat quarreled several times with former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, as well as with Abbas, and even tendered his resignation under both administrations, but was rejected each time.

With Shimon Peres in Tel Aviv, 2005Credit: REUTERS

When the PA was established in 1994, Arafat appointed Erekat as a minister of local government. Two years later he was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council as a representative of the Fatah movement from the Jericho region, where he lived until his death.

Two years ago, during power struggles within the Palestinian Authority, Abbas removed Yasser Abed Rabbo from his position as secretary general of the PLO central committee and appointed Erekat in his place, a post that he held until his death. In 2006, Erekat was reelected to the Palestinian parliament as a representative of his home district in Jericho, despite Hamas’ triumph there.

“I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in the history of man,” he told a reporter in 2007, the year that Hamas seized control of Gaza. “I have no army, no navy, no economy, my society is fragmented.”

Reuters and AP contributed to this report.

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