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Longtime Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat dies at 65

Saeb Erekat, an icon of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for three decades, died Tuesday at age 65.

Flashback: At age 36, he arrived with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation at the opening ceremony of the 1991 Madrid peace conference wearing a traditional Palestinian keffiyeh.

  • When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir went berserk and threatened to leave, Secretary of State Jim Baker stepped in and insisted Erekat could wear whatever he liked.

Since that time, Erekat had been one of the only stable things in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and took part in every round of talks.

  • Erekat established the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s negotiations department and was a human archive of the peace process.
  • He obsessively documented every detail in every meeting between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
  • Many Israeli and American negotiators came and went, but he was always there.
  • Erekat’s American and Israeli counterparts knew he had access to every piece of relevant information — in his head or in the files in his office — much of which they didn’t have.

Erekat was a champion of the two-state solution and rejected violence and terrorism.

  • He did his fighting in the negotiation rooms and on CNN.

Behind the scenes: Israeli and U.S. negotiators who worked with Erekat over the years describe him as a Palestinian patriot and a tough partner.

  • One Israeli official who knew him intimately told me Erekat never hesitated to say no to U.S. presidents — from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump.
  • As one Israeli official put it: “Saeb was a pain in the ass, but he fought for what he believed in.”
  • Netanyahu complained about him to former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. He even tried several times to push Erekat out or circumvent him through backchannels — but Erekat always managed to stay in the game.

After Kerry’s peace initiative failed in 2014, Erekat started to become disillusioned with the peace process and began pushing for unilateral Palestinian measures in international institutions.

  • When Trump assumed office, he gave it another chance. He claimed to have met Trump and his advisers 37 times.
  • His last meeting at the White House was in December 2017 — a few days before Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the Palestinians cut ties with the U.S. government.

In the last three years, Erekat grew bitter.

  • He called for dismantling the Palestinian Authority and throwing the keys to Israel so it would have to take full responsibility for its occupation in the West Bank.
  • In our conversations in recent months, he told me he felt there was nobody left to talk to in Jerusalem and in Washington.

The bottom line: Erekat spent his whole life working to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but never got to see peace. It’s hard to see who can replace him.

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