מיכאל מילשטיין
Michael Milstein
Saeb Erekat

Erekat was neither 'enemy in disguise' nor one of us

Opinion: The late Palestinian negotiator was a man with whom you could sit at the table, even as he continued to promote propaganda against Israel; he wasn't a friend of Israel, but he did wish for peace and a better future

Michael Milstein |
Published: 11.13.20 , 08:58
More so than any other Palestinian leader, including President Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat represented the era of the Oslo Accords - the utopian approach to the Middle East conflict.
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  • His first political steps were taken roughly at the same time as the political process that brought us the Accords got underway in the early 1990s.
    Saeb Erekat  Saeb Erekat
    Saeb Erekat
    (Photo: Reuters)
    From the start, Erekat was involved in almost every round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for the past three decades. He was a kind of human archive, remembering every document, position and idea raised during the negotiations.
    His death from coronavirus on Tuesday in many ways represents the end of the Oslo era, although many feel it died several years ago.
    Indeed, people like Erekat had little to offer Palestinian society today, especially considering the collective slump in which the Palestinians found themselves in recent years.
    The negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been put on indefinite hold; the Palestinians' vision of an independent state is dimming rapidly; Arab and international backing is diminishing while internal divisions are deepening.
    In lieu of a true solution offered by their government or Hamas’ plan of resistance, many Palestinians are beginning to support a one-state solution that would see them live under Israeli sovereignty.
    Saeb Erekat, right, watches as then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sign an agreement paving the way for talks on a permanent peace settlement, Sept. 1999 Saeb Erekat, right, watches as then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sign an agreement paving the way for talks on a permanent peace settlement, Sept. 1999
    Saeb Erekat, right, watches as then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sign an agreement paving the way for talks on a permanent peace settlement, Sept. 1999
    (Photo: AFP)
    Erekat was a difficult figure to fathom. On one hand he was a person who represented the path of dialogue and the longing for separation between the two peoples living on the same land and on the other he was a leader who did not shy away from attacking Israel mercilessly - more than once making fraudulent claims, such as his lie to the global media that the IDF had massacred hundreds of Arabs in Jenin in 2002.
    Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat during negotiations in 2013 Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat during negotiations in 2013
    Then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat during negotiations in 2013
    (Photo: EPA)
    Erekat was the personification of Palestinian leadership in the 20th century - the kind that supported negotiations but ultimately failed to make decisions, demonstrate flexibility and adapt to changing circumstances.
    The Israeli discourse surrounding the man was charged even prior to his death, and perfectly reflects the Israeli difficulty in dealing with the complexity that is the Palestinian issue, and the tendency to interpret almost anything dichotomously and through an Israeli point of view.
    He was either “one of us” - a man interested in advancing peace and a true partner in negotiations - or an “enemy in disguise” working to topple Israel through incitement and hate mongering.
    Saeb Erekat meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016 Saeb Erekat meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016
    Saeb Erekat meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in 2016
    (Photo: GPO)
    Erekat was first and foremost a Palestinian leader who held onto goals and a collective memory that are not only different from ours but often stand in complete contradiction to them.
    I was mainly divided over his claim that the 1948 Nakba, which saw half of the Palestine population displaced following the War of Independence, was solely Israel’s fault, and that the only way to make up for this “historic injustice” was to allow the Palestinian people to return to their homes inside Israel.
    Erekat was a man with whom you could sit at the negotiating table and discuss normalization with mutual recognition, even as he continued to promote propaganda to cause serious damage to Israel or visit the homes of terrorists.
     יו"ר הרשות הפלסטינית אבו מאזן יו"ר הרשות הפלסטינית אבו מאזן
    Saeb Erekat accompanies Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at an Arab League meeting in Cairo to discuss the Trump peace plan, January 2020
    (Photo: EPA)
    Today most Palestinian leaders adhere to an eternal violent struggle against Israel while vehemently refusing to even consider the possibility of direct discourse or mutual recognition.
    Erekat's death should at least serve as a reminder in Israel of the need for an in-depth discussion about our future relationship with the Palestinians.

    Michael Milstein is the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
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