Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian peace negotiator and one of the most high-profile figures in its leadership since the early 1990s, has died after contracting coronavirus.
Erekat, a lawmaker from Jericho in the occupied West Bank, was a senior adviser to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and also worked for Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat. He served as the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Unrelenting in his indignation against Israeli control over Palestinian life, the US-educated former journalist and academic was well-known to three decades of diplomatic and media circles for his condemnation of what he eventually described as apartheid, delivering his criticism in his trademark staccato voice.
The 65-year-old underwent a lung transplant in the US in 2017 and had been in poor health since. On 8 October, he announced he had been diagnosed with Covid-19 and later said he was experiencing “difficult symptoms”.
After being transferred to Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, doctors said his condition deteriorated to become critical, and he was placed on a ventilator. On Tuesday one of his senior aides announced that he had died.
Having studied politics in the UK and US, Erekat was a key player pushing for the two-state solution doctrine, under which the country of Palestine would be created alongside Israel. In early peace negotiations, he wore a black-and-white checked keffiyeh scarf as a symbol of the Palestinian nation he envisioned.
Several officials from across the spectrum, including Israeli politicians, commemorated his life. Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister who had sat on the opposite side of the table to Erekat, said she was saddened by his death.
“Saeb dedicated his life to his people,” she wrote on Twitter. “Being sick, he texted me: ‘I’m not finished with what I was born to do’. My deepest condolences to the Palestinians and his family. He will be missed.”
“I’m not finished with what I was born to do,” he recently messaged Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister and one of his main negotiating partners. “I overcame a lung transplant, and I’ll defeat this Covid.”
Erekat witnessed the teasing beginnings of that aspiration materialise. In 1994, his home town of Jericho was handed over from Israeli troops to Palestinian forces in what was expected to be the first stages of an eventual deal.
“It is a partly joyous feeling, but I also believe we have only begun,” he told the Guardian in May 1994. “It is a time to plan, to work hard and to tighten our belts. We cannot afford to fail.”
Three years later, Erekat was more pessimistic, telling the Los Angeles Times that Israel’s new hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, considered the peace accords signed by his predecessor as a “poison dagger in his heart. He must pull it out”.
“I think Netanyahu’s ultimate goal is to get his tanks rolling into the Palestinian areas,” Erekat told the paper. “To be honest with you, I think the worst is coming.”
What followed was the bloody Second Intifada, several failed attempts to resuscitate the peace agreement and Israel’s increasingly permanent grip over the occupied West Bank, something Erekat referred to as the “colonial-settler occupation”. Palestinians living there now reside in semi-enclaves – urban areas with some form of autonomy but ultimately with their lives dominated by Israeli forces.
Despite being in his mid-60s, Erekat was a younger member of Abbas’s senior leadership team, which has been criticised by Palestinians for being undemocratic and failing to drive real change.
During Erekat’s final years, Netanyahu, encouraged by Donald Trump, declared his intention to annex huge swaths of the West Bank, a move seen as the death blow to the two-state ideal.
After Trump recognised the contested city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, Erekat said the message was clear: “The two-state solution is over. Now is the time to transform the struggle for one state with equal rights for everyone living in historic Palestine.”
Despite his continued pessimism, Erekat remained a prolific voice, including for the two-state solution, holding regular conferences with reporters in Jericho.
During one of his last meetings, in May, the politician warned that Israeli aspirations to annex land would lead future generations of Palestinians to abandon the idea of a negotiated solution.
“I’m one of the ones who promised Palestinians, that once we recognise Israel, once we renounce violence, once we accept the two-state solution, once we negotiate, then we can have our independence,” he said.
“Who will be the Palestinian in the next 1,000 years looking at my experience and what we’ve done, who will be willing to sit with the Israelis at the table?”