Saeb Erekat, one of the most recognizable faces of the Palestinian struggle, has died from the coronavirus at the age of 65.
The longtime Palestinian chief negotiator was the youngest of the top leadership team and was viewed as the leading candidate to take over from President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 84. The race to replace him is now a free-for-all at a time when President Donald Trump’s ejection from office could open the door to renewed U.S.-brokered negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Erekat served as a bridge from the earliest efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, underwritten by the George H.W. Bush administration, to the turbulent Donald Trump era, when the goal appeared more elusive than ever.
He was the principal architect of the Palestinian response to the punitive measures levied against the Palestinian Authority by the Trump administration, which included expelling the Palestinian representative to Washington and the complete withdrawal of American aid.
Although he was a fervent nationalist and passionate advocate for Palestinian statehood, Erekat was a low-key, genial man.
Erekat contracted the coronavirus last month. In 2017, after a decade-long battle with pulmonary fibrosis, he received a lung transplant at INOVA hospital center in Virginia, which restored him to health but left him at high risk of a dangerous infection.
Fatah, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, announced that he died on Tuesday at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
Last week, as news of Joe Biden’s victory arrived in Ramallah, and Erekat lay in a coma, the Palestinian Authority indicated its openness to restart negotiations with Israel that have been in deep freeze since the failure of former Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reopen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Erekat’s death will prompt a reshuffle in the leadership. At 47, Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom and a protégé of Erekat is the youngest Palestinian official who may soon gain prominence.
Zomlot was kicked out of the United States in 2018 when the Trump administration closed the Palestinian representative office in Washington, D.C. He is the leading candidate to reopen a Palestinian mission in Washington, D.C., early next year when the incoming Biden administration is expected to renew ties.
He eulogized his mentor on Twitter. “Palestine has lost a courageous defender of Palestinian rights, a titan of diplomacy and a tireless voice of reason,” he wrote. “Palestinian people will miss him. Our cause will miss him. I will miss him.”
Referring to Erekat as his “peace brother,” Martin Indyk, President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel, said, “Your commitment to pursuing freedom for your people by peaceful means will shine forever as a beacon that will guide them onwards.”
Jason Greenblatt, who served as Trump’s envoy to international negotiations, under whose watch ties between Washington and Ramallah were severed, tweeted that “Saeb & I were worlds apart in our views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s history & how to resolve it. But he tried hard to represent his people.”
The Geneva Initiative, the non-governmental group that continues to champion the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressed condolences for a “devoted advocate for the two-state solution and champion of the Palestinian cause… his commitment never faltered, nor did his willingness to engage with the other side.”
The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, described Erekat as “a champion of dialogue and Palestinian rights.”
A statement from the Trump administration was not immediately available.
Erekat was born in what was then-Jordanian-held east Jerusalem in 1955. At the age of 17, he left home for the first time in order to attend a San Francisco high school as a visiting foreign student. He took a liking to the United States, graduating from San Francisco State University in 1977 with a degree in international relations, earning a master’s degree in political science two years later.
In 1983, he received a Ph.D. in peace and conflict studies at Bradford University in the U.K.
Before joining the Palestinian negotiating team in 1991, Erekat taught political science at An-Najah National University in Nablus, in the West Bank, and served on the editorial board of the daily Al-Quds newspaper.
He is survived by his wife, Niemeh; twin daughters, Dalal and Salam, a doctor; and two sons, Mohammed and Ali.
While he remained a fan of America he encountered in his youth to his dying day, he pondered the deteriorating relationship in a 2019 interview with The Daily Beast.
“Why this war against Palestinian moderates—and Israeli moderates—by this administration,” he asked, in a conversation at his Ramallah office.
“Is there a reason? I can’t figure it out. The only explanation I have is ideological. [The U.S. Ambassador] says that God sent Trump to save Jerusalem. Actually, he said something worse. ‘Israel has a secret weapon,’” he said. “‘It’s the only country that is on the side of God.’ So I responded that I thought Israel’s secret was its nuclear weapon.”
Despite his unstinting negotiating style, Erekat maintained decades-long friendships with the Israelis with whom he negotiated, even though they failed to achieve a deal. One such friend, the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, said in a tweet that Erekat had recently texted her, while he was ill, to say, “I’m not finished with what I was born to do.”