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Saeb Erekat, longtime Palestinian peace negotiator, dies of the coronavirus

(JTA) — Saeb Erekat, the perpetually optimistic Palestinian peace negotiator who forged close relationships with his Israeli counterparts and pressed until his final days for a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has died.

Erekat, 65, died Tuesday at Hadassah hospital in Ein Kerem, a suburb of Jerusalem, where he was in the care of Israeli physicians. He had been hospitalized with the coronavirus since last month. Erekat received a lung transplant in 2017, heightening his risk of COVID-19 complications.

Much of Erekat’s adult life was dedicated to multiple attempts to arrive at a peace agreement with Israel. He was the deputy head of the Palestinian delegation at the 1991 Madrid talks convened by U.S. President George H. W. Bush, the first time Israeli government officials negotiated directly with Palestinian counterparts, albeit in a multilateral setting.

He became the chief Palestinian negotiator once the Oslo peace process direct talks were underway in 1993 and with a few absences stayed in that position throughout his life. He also was secretary-general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Erekat, a political science Ph.D. educated in the United States and England, was known for his erudition, his long memory and his sharp expressions of acerbic anger, which often softened quickly to conciliation. He announced his resignation as top negotiator multiple times but never left the job.

He could infuriate Israelis, accusing the country of practicing apartheid and misrepresenting as a massacre a battle in Jenin during the Second Intifada.

But he maintained friendships with his Israeli and Jewish interlocutors, earning him their well-wishes after his hospitalization, and their condolences after he died.

“Saeb dedicated his life to his people,” said Tzipi Livni, whose negotiations with Erekat during the 2007-2008 Annapolis talks, when she was the Israeli foreign minister, often devolved into shouting and recrimination.

“Reaching peace is my destiny he used to say,” she said 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.”

“Rest In Peace my peace brother,” Martin Indyk, for years a top U.S. peace negotiator, said on Twitter. “Your commitment to pursuing freedom for your people by peaceful means will shine forever as a beacon that will guide them onwards.”

Erekat publicly mourned Yitzhak Rabin after a Jewish extremist murdered the Israeli prime minister in 1995 and wept when a reporter informed him that Rabin was killed.

He would gently remonstrate with pro-Palestinian activists who blamed Israel alone for the impasse, saying that the Palestinian leadership had also missed some opportunities.

“Did we commit mistakes as Palestinians in Camp David?” he said in a 2005 talk at the Palestine Center, a pro-Palestinian think tank in Washington. “You bet we committed mistakes, but we were not the only ones who committed mistakes.”

Erekat endeavored to form close ties with the top Trump administration peace brokers, and welcomed them to his hospital room when he underwent a lung transplant in Washington three years ago.

But relations turned bitter after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority cut each other off. In 2018, Erekat engaged in a battle of personal insults with Trump’s top negotiator, Jason Greenblatt.

Greenblatt, who has now returned to private life, expressed condolences on Twitter. “Saeb and I were worlds apart in our views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its history, and how to resolve it,” he said. “But he tried hard to represent his people. Wishing his family much comfort /strength during this difficult time.”

Erekat remained committed to the two-state solution, tweeting out a video reiterating PLO backing for the outcome just weeks ago — albeit in the form of an attack on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In September he took on a position at Harvard, as a fellow on the university’s Future of Diplomacy project — and emphasizing his backing for two states in his biography.

As with so many statesmen, Erekat’s greatest weakness also informed his greatest strength. He was optimistic even after the collapse in August 2000 of the Camp David talks, meeting this reporter at his palatial home in his beloved Jericho. He said Israel’s agreement in those talks to discuss final status borders, land swaps and the sharing of Jerusalem was a game-changer.

“I don’t think our negotiations will ever be the same after Camp David,” Erekat said at the time, envisioning a return to talks within weeks, and a deal before the Clinton presidency was done.

He was right, even if his optimism was misplaced, at least in the immediately subsequent events: Negotiations collapsed within months with the launch of the Second Intifada. Its years of carnage including mass killings of Israeli civilians sowed deep mistrust. But Erekat, undaunted, was back at it in 2007, at the Annapolis talks, in 2013, at the Obama administration-brokered talks and in 2017 at the Trump talks.

In his Palestine Center talk in 2005, he explained his reasoning to Ori Nir, the Israeli journalist with whom he had wept 10 years earlier upon hearing of Rabin’s assassination. Nir asked him what the rush was to get to a peace deal. Erekat said he was thinking of his child and of Nir’s children.

“It’s either two winners or two losers,” Erekat said of the conflict. “And two losers we have been through the conflict and the mentality, thus the rush. I believe we owe it to our peoples to say time is of the essence. And saving a single life is worth it. This is not poetry. It’s my son.”

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