Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat died Tuesday aged 65 after developing complications from coronavirus, the Jerusalem hospital where he was treated confirmed.
Erekat, who served as Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the PLO, was in critical condition on a ventilator at Hadassah University Hospital at Ein Kerem since being admitted to the Israeli hospital mid-October.
The hospital said last month that the treatment for Erekat was a "huge challenge" due to his lung transplant in 2017, saying he also had a "weakened immune system and bacterial infection" as well as suffering from coronavirus.
His Fatah party announced his death in a statement. A relative and a Palestinian official confirmed he passed away, speaking on condition of anonymity out of privacy concerns.
Joint List leader Ahmad Tibi also confirmed the death on his Twitter account. "Dr. Saeb Erekat passed away. A freind and courageous leader. Allah yerhamo. RIP."
The American-educated Erekat was involved in nearly every round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians going back to the landmark Madrid conference in 1991, when he famously showed up draped in a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism.
Over the next few decades Erekat was a constant presence in Western media, where he tirelessly advocated for a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, defended the Palestinian leadership and blamed Israel for the failure to reach an agreement.
Erekat was born on April 28, 1955 in Jerusalem. He spent most of his life in the West Bank town of Jericho, a palm-studded desert oasis about 30 minutes from Jerusalem. As a child in Jericho, he witnessed Palestinians fleeing to nearby Jordan during the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
In interviews, Erekat often spoke about life and his family in Jericho, as a way of explaining the impact of Israeli occupation to foreign viewers and to position himself as an ordinary Palestinian. His wit and grasp of colloquial American phrases made him popular with interviewers.
Erekat studied abroad, earning a BA and MA in international relations from San Francisco State University and later completing a Ph.D. at the University of Bradford in the U.K., where he focused on conflict resolution. Erekat also held U.S. citizenship.
When he returned to the West Bank he became a professor at An-Najah University in Nablus and an editor at the Al-Quds newspaper. A self-described pragmatist, he invited Israeli students to visit the university in the late 1980s and condemned violence on all sides.
He was nevertheless convicted of incitement by an Israeli military court in 1987 after troops raided the university and found an English-language newsletter he had authored in which he wrote that "Palestinians must learn how to endure and resist" all the forms of occupation.
Erekat insisted he was advocating peaceful resistance and not armed struggle, and he was later given an eight-month suspended sentence and fined $6,250. "If they have reached the point of fining someone like me $6,250 for three words written in English and sent abroad, then the occupation is not working and they are really getting nervous," he later said.
The First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, erupted later that year in the form of mass protests, general strikes and clashes with Israeli troops. That uprising, along with U.S. pressure on Israel, culminated in the Madrid conference, widely seen as the start of the Mideast peace process.
Erekat was a prominent representative of Palestinians living inside the occupied territories at the time, but became a close aide to Arafat when the exiled Palestine Liberation Organization returned to the territories following the 1993 Oslo accords. In subsequent years he routinely served as Arafat's translator, and was sometimes accused of editing his remarks to soften the rough edges of the guerrilla leader-turned-aspiring statesman.
Throughout the 1990s, Erekat was a frequent guest on CNN and other news programs, where he condemned violence on both sides but warned that the peace process was at risk of collapse because of Israel's refusal to withdraw from the territories.
Then, as now, the Palestinians sought an independent state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Oslo accords were intended to pave the way for such a settlement, but the process stalled amid a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks by Palestinian militant groups and continued Israeli settlement construction and failure to keep pledges to turn over territory to Palestinian control. With both sides accusing each other of acting in bad faith, they were unable to agree on final status issues, such as borders, security, Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Erekat was part of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David in 2000, when President Bill Clinton brought the two sides together for marathon talks aimed at reaching a final agreement. The talks ended inconclusively, and a few months later a second and far more violent intifada erupted.
By then Erekat had become a senior Palestinian official and was seen as a possible successor to Arafat, who died in a French hospital in 2004. Erekat accompanied Arafat's body on the flight back to the West Bank for burial. He continued as a top aide to Abbas and served as a senior negotiator in sporadic peace efforts in the late 2000s.
"I am the most disadvantaged negotiator in the history of man," he told a reporter in 2007, the year that the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces. "I have no army, no navy, no economy, my society is fragmented."
Erekat resigned as chief negotiator in 2011 after a trove of documents was leaked to the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera showing that the Palestinian leadership had offered major concessions in past peace talks that were never made public. But Erekat remained a senior Palestinian official and a close adviser to Abbas, who later appointed him secretary general of the PLO.
While Erekat was welcomed in world capitals, he was more controversial in the West Bank, where he was seen as part of an elite clique enjoying a jet-setting lifestyle but detached from the public and clinging to an unrealistic goal after years of failed peace efforts and Israeli settlement expansion.
He was a strident critic of U.S. President Donald Trump's Mideast plan, which overwhelmingly favors Israel and would allow it to keep nearly all of east Jerusalem and up to 30% of the West Bank. He derisively said "real estate men" would never solve the conflict and accused Trump and Netanyahu of teaming up to "destroy the Palestinian national project."
"To reject this plan isn't to reject peace but the contrary: Rejecting it means rejecting the perpetuation of a system of apartheid," he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in January.
He closed the column with the same call to action he had been issuing for nearly three decades. "The international community must decide: Either it stands on the right side of history with the independence of the state of Palestine living side by side, in peace and security, with the state of Israel on the 1967 border - or it agrees to tolerate an apartheid regime."
Erekat is survived by his wife, two sons, twin daughters and eight grandchildren.