RAMALLAH, West Bank – Saeb Erekat, the tireless Palestinian peace negotiator, believed until the day he died in an Israeli hospital this week that only diplomacy would solve the Middle East conflict and lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It was not an easy path, both because of Israel’s intransigence and because many Palestinians turned against the peace process and its negotiators after years of unsuccessful negotiations. Even so, Saeb, who had a sharp tongue and a quick mind and was my friend, remained steadfast.
I met Saeb in Jerusalem in 1983 when he was returning from a doctorate at Bradford University in England. Immediately he impressed me with his eloquence, dedication and energy, and I was glad he had returned to join our struggle for independence. Saeb was from Abu Dis near Jerusalem and was born 12 years before the start of the Israeli occupation. When he was 17, he traveled to the United States to attend college. In 1979 he earned his Masters in Political Science from San Francisco State University. His doctoral thesis focused on peace and conflict studies.
In the West Bank, he worked as a lecturer in political science at An-Najah National University and as a writer for the most popular local newspaper. He was also a member of the editorial team.
By the late 1980s, Saeb had become active in the First Intifada, a popular Palestinian uprising that included protests, boycotts, and general strikes. Israel placed him under house arrest and forbade him to travel abroad. However, Saeb’s opportunity to use his talents came only a few years later when he joined the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid International Peace Conference in 1991. With his flair for drama and his keen sense of public relations, Saeb popped up at the sessions on a plaid keffiyeh headdress, a Palestinian national symbol. The Israeli delegation firmly opposed the conference and threatened a boycott unless he picked it up. Saeb won this first symbolic victory, drawing attention in the process.
During the negotiations in Washington, DC, I served as the delegation’s legal advisor, watching his hard work and dedication to learning the craft of politics. Among other things, he was tasked with overseeing Israel’s negotiations with Syria – whose representatives took a hard line with Israel. He drew lessons from the experience that would help him in his own interactions with Israelis in the decades to come.
Like other members of the Palestinian delegation in Washington, Saeb was kept in the dark over the secret return channel that took place in Oslo in late 1992 between Israel and the PLO. He learned that an agreement had been reached the summer of the following year en route to Washington for another official meeting. It was a blow to Saeb not to be kept up to date, but the bigger disappointment was that the Oslo Accords did not include a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For the Washington delegation, a freeze had been a requirement for any deal. Even so, he accepted the interim contract as a starting point and said that Guardian Newspaper at the time: “We have only just started. It is a time to plan, work hard, and tighten our belts. We cannot afford to fail. “
And he worked hard. Saeb was named chairman of the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel in 1994. When the Palestinian Authority was established, he was a minister in the local government and later general secretary of the PLO’s Central Committee. He was twice elected to the Palestinian Parliament to represent his home district in Jericho. He had moved to the desert city because the dry climate and abundance of oxygen helped alleviate his health: pulmonary fibrosis.
During his long career as a diplomat, he met heads of state and dignitaries from around the world. He could be forgiving, but he also knew when to assert himself.
In recent years, Saeb has chaired the National High Committee to Prosecute the International Criminal Court, a PLO body that aims to bring Israelis accused of war crimes to justice. So far, the committee of which I am a member has not stopped Israelis from violating human rights with impunity. In June of this year, Israeli police shot and killed Saeb’s nephew as he approached a checkpoint near Bethlehem.
Despite the futility of the negotiations with Israel, Saeb continued. He managed to maneuver the often chaotic state of Palestinian politics and the aggressive policies of the seemingly eternal Israeli leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Erekat continued to meet with Israelis as Netanyahu’s successive governments built more and more houses in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank with the aim of excluding a Palestinian state.
When President Donald Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2017 and recognized the city as Israel’s capital, Saeb’s belief in a diplomatic solution eventually wavered. He told the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “The two-state solution is over. Now is the time to change the struggle for a state with equal rights for all people living in historic Palestine. “But even after this setback and the Israeli threat of annexing parts of the West Bank, Saeb continued his efforts to achieve a two-state solution.
In his book Imam Ali Bin Abi Taleb and NegotiationsSaeb wrote, “Ali emphasizes patience and perseverance as an important pillar of communication and negotiation between people. Patience is also one of the pillars of faith and the way to victory. Indeed, it is at the beating heart of politics and relations between people and nations. “
He certainly had both patience and perseverance, but his health has deteriorated in recent years. He underwent a lung transplant in 2017 and was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year. He died of COVID complications on November 10th.
Saeb was a few years younger than me. His death is a painful reminder that members of my generation who have worked hard to achieve a Palestinian state may never realize their dream. It should be painful for Israelis too. The death of a man who is so deeply committed to a negotiated peace agreement is a tragedy for them too.