Hardly any other Palestinian leader had more experience with Middle Eastern peace talks than Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s secretary general, who died on Tuesday at the age of 65.
Described by those close to him as intelligent and effective in his approach, the studied political scientist Erekat was in charge of the peace negotiations with Israel in the early 1990s. The Palestinian’s lead negotiator was born in 1955 in Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, to a large upper class Palestinian family. He spent most of his later life living in the autonomous Palestinian desert city of Jericho.
While Erekat could not speak Hebrew, he was fluent in English, allowing him to pointedly articulate the Palestinian position in interviews with Western broadcasters. He studied in San Francisco in the United States and in the northern English city of Bradford, where he earned a doctorate in peace and conflict studies. He later said it first became clear to him during his time in Britain that the Middle East conflict could not be solved with violence.
Returning to the Palestinian Territories, he became a political science professor at the University of Nablus. Erekat first joined the peace process as deputy head of the Palestinian delegation during the 1991 Madrid talks with Israel. Though he was not involved in the secret US-brokered talks that led to the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords, he was brought back on board shortly afterwards by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Erekat then served as the chief negotiator for talks with Israel from 1995, with only a few short disruptions. A moderate and fervent supporter of diplomacy, Erekat was considered a tough negotiating partner who remained loyal to the guidelines set out for him by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Political observers in Ramallah say Erekat had no decision-making power of his own, but he had considerable influence on President Mahmud Abbas. Erekat was a close follower of Abbas’ predecessor, PLO Chairman Arafat, who died in 2004.
After Abbas made Erekat secretary general of the PLO’s executive committee in 2015, many predicted he could become a successor to Abbas himself.
In recent years, Erekat was suffering from poor health, travelling to the US for a lung transplant following lung disease in October 2017.