Leaders from around the world noted the passing of Erekat, who died of complications from covid-19. A figure who loomed large in the region’s diplomatic affairs for decades, he was well known to the Middle East experts likely to staff the State Department under Joe Biden’s presidency.
An academic who spoke fluent English and advocated nonviolent change, Erekat earned a reputation as a negotiator who had read everything and came prepared.
“If there had been no Saeb Erekat, you would have had to invent one” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator who knew Erekat over more than 40 years. “And if there are ever again going to be serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, they are going to have to find another one.”
Erekat, 65, had a history of respiratory trouble and received a lung transplant in the United States three years ago. After he fell ill with covid-19 in October, his daughter, a physician, treated him at his West Bank home in Jericho until he was transferred in critical condition to an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem.
His presence there for three weeks sparked small protests by Israelis who held Erekat responsible for Palestinian terrorist attacks. Some Israeli politicians said the government should have insisted on concessions from the Palestinian Authority before allowing him to receive treatment.
But until contracting covid-19 in October, Erekat remained active in the inner circle of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Dr. Erekat devoted his life to defending and fighting for the achievement of our right to freedom, self-determination, national independence, and the return of Palestine’s refugees,” the Palestinian Authority said in a statement. “His memory will remain eternal, enlightening his people’s conscience until the fulfillment of what he fought with them to achieve: the end of Israel’s brutal occupation and the realization of Palestine’s independence with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Erekat was remembered with respect, even by many Israelis. Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party and an advocate for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, said that “despite his frustration with the situation, he never abandoned his adherence to the two-state solution, his life project, and always preferred peace over violence and terrorism.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called Erekat “a champion of dialogue and Palestinian rights.”
But the Negotiations Affairs Department he ran in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, has been in diplomatic limbo in recent years as talks in the stalemated conflict remained stalled. He nevertheless appeared frequently in Western media to condemn the rightward tilt of Israeli governments under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He and Palestinian officials refused to meet with White House officials for discussions leading up to the Trump peace plan, which was released earlier this year. The plan called for the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank in exchange for a limited Palestinian state, and Erekat dismissed it as hopelessly favoring Israeli interests.
Now, Biden is expected restore the Palestinian mission in Washington and reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem. It remains unclear whom Abbas will find to fill Erekat’s lead role as Palestinians prepare to possibly reengage with the Americans, said Sabri Saidam, who served alongside Erekat on the Fatah Central Committee.
“Erekat’s main task over the last few years was to wait and see, being that Trump went in a direction that sided fully with Israel and denied totally the rights of Palestinians,” Saidam said.
Nabil Kukali, head of the Palestinian Center of Public Opinion, said Palestinians will remember Erekat over the next three days of official mourning, but that many have already come to terms with the death of the two-state solution that he spent his career fighting for.
“Before, during Erekat’s time, there was talk about a two-state solution,” Kukali said. “Today, they’re not even talking about a one-state solution. Palestinians know they have no options.”