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Palestinian peacemaker Saeb Erekat’s death mourned by both sides

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat died last week. File picture: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat died last week. File picture: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Published Nov 16, 2020


By Michael Donen

It is rare for those spearheading a peace initiative during a war to still command the respect of both those leading the armed struggle on his own side, and those among the enemy with whom he negotiates.

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Saeb Erekat, who died last week, was such a person. He had been the Palestinian people’s chief peace negotiator with the Israeli government since the tenure of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic opposed to Rabin’s efforts at making peace with the Palestinians.

Until the current Israeli administration rendered it impossible, Erekat tirelessly argued for a negotiated twostate solution along 1967 border lines which would allow the Palestinians to exercise their fundamental right to self-determination alongside Israel.

While hardliners among his compatriots rejected this solution, and indeed any peaceful solution, or recognition of Israel’s very right to exist, they did not reject Erekat.

He was a secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He worked for Yasser Arafat, and was senior adviser to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Erekat defended the Palestinian leadership and blamed Israel for the failure to reach an agreement.

Erekat stated that Donald Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan for the Middle-East legitimised violations of international law and defined Trump’s political blindness, arrogance, and ignorance.

The inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem while a massacre was taking place in Gaza only 40km away, he said, demonstrated the complete US and Israeli denial of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in their own homeland. This riled both Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Nevertheless, Erekat was respected by the Israeli peace negotiators who sat on the opposite side of the table to him. Yossi Belin, who held various ministries in the Israeli government between 1995 and 2001, and who had participated in the back-channel negotiations that eventually led to the adoption of the 1993 Oslo Accords, a framework to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regarded Erekat with the utmost respect. Erekat, he said, was a tough negotiator.

Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister, said Erekat had dedicated his life to his people. She was saddened by his death and sent her deepest condolences to the Palestinians and his family. Erekat’s faith in a peaceful solution had been teased out of him in 1994, when pursuant to the Oslo Accords his home town of Jericho was handed over from Israeli troops to Palestinian forces in what was expected to be the first stages of the Oslo deal.

But Erekat later observed that when Netanyahu came to power, it was clear that he considered peace accords signed by his predecessor as a “poison dagger in his heart. He must pull it out.”

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Netanyahu did not officially acknowledge Erekat’s death. He feared to recognise his existence, even in death. Because recognising him in death would give Erekat recognition in life. And that would mean there had always been a Palestinian leader for Netanyahu to negotiate a peace deal with. Recognising Erekat would expose the lie in Netanyahu’s excuse for not sitting down with the Palestinians: “There is no one to negotiate with.”

The geographic effects of Netanyahu’s mass de-settlement of Palestinians, and settlement of Israelis, illegally, in their places, have now virtually ensured that the only outcomes to the “problem of Palestine” are a one-state solution with a unitary democracy and universal suffrage – which Israel will forever reject – or the perpetual attrition of Palestinians living under military occupation without self-determination or genuine civil or political rights (the route upon which Netanyahu has embarked).

But with the death of Erekat, Netanyahu’s lie – the absence of anyone willing to sit down with Israel being the cause of the absence of negotiation – could well also have become the truth.

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* Donen SC is a legal practitioner and listed counsel of the International Criminal Court.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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