Friday’s Fact: Saeb Erekat Underwent a Lung Transplant, while the Peace Process is on Life Support
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian long-time diplomat and chief negotiator, underwent a successful lung transplant operation in the US last week, according to Maan News Network. The 62-year-old diplomat has declared that he is expected to make a full recovery after the surgery. However, with a clear health issue, this might force Erekat to remove himself from the diplomatic core after over two decades of shaping Palestinian diplomatic discourse. This raises questions not only about the destination of Palestinian international relations with the absence of the PA’s chief negotiator and international networker, but also about the future of Fatah with the absence of one of the most recognizable members of its old guard.
Saeb Erekat was born in April of 1955 in the West Bank city of Jericho, where he underwent his high school education and still lives to this day. His family is one of wealthy means that made its fortune operating a bus company that it lost in the aftermath of the 1967. A 17-year-old Erekat moved to the US to pursue his education in the aftermath. In 1977, Erekat returned to Palestine to lecture in Political Science at al-Najah University in Nablus. He eventually attained his PhD in Badford University in the UK in international relations. Erekat’s career included teaching at local universities and writing for al-Quds newspaper before he entered into the political sphere.
Despite his reputation as a staunch diplomat and stalwart of the peace process, Erekat suffered greatly under the Israeli occupation. Not only was his family fortune lost due to the occupation, but also during the 1980s, Erekat was arrested numerous times by the Israeli occupation armies under accusations ranging from “inciting sedition” to “printing illegal literature”, according to a 1987 New York Times article. This was due to a published newsletter in English in which he said Palestinians should “endure and reject and resist” military rule. Erekat was also placed under house arrest during the first years of the first Intifada. Interestingly, Erekat’s first arrest occurred when bringing Israeli students from Tel Aviv University to Al-Najah University in 1983, his students accused him of treason and he got arrested by the Israeli military authorities for “sowing division among Israelis”. Furthermore, he promoted dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis in one of his articles causing anger among his students at Al-Najah campus and led to a boycott of his classes, protesting his “betrayal” of the Palestinian cause.
With the start of the Peace Process, Erekat began to leave his finger prints on the Palestinian cause. He began his diplomatic career as vice-chairman for the Palestinian/ Jordanian Delegation at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. His role continued during the following Washington talks 1992-93 until Erekat became the Palestinians’ lead negotiator at on Hebron in 1997, Wye River in 1998, and in Camp David in 2000. He has since become Palestine’s chief negotiator. Thus he is one of the few remaining active members of Fatah and the PLO, who have witnessed the beginning of the peace process first-hand.
Erekat is also a pillar of Fatah. He was appointed by Yasser Arafat to the cabinet as PA Minister for Local Government in 1994. In the 1996 parliamentarian elections, he ran for the Jericho PLC seat representing Fatah and winning by 62% of the vote. In 2003, then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas appointed Erekat to the post of Minister for Negotiations Affairs in his short-lived cabinet. He was elected to Fatah’s 19-member ruling body (Fatah Central Committee) on 8th July 2009, and was re-elected to the same body on 5th December 2015. Consequently, he was appointed to the positions of the Secretary-General of the PLO by Mahmoud Abbas in July 2015, which is in many ways the second highest position within the PLO’s executive arm.
Erekat’s influence, experience and positions on the peace process are unmatched in Palestinian politics. He is also largely untainted by the aftermath of the Palestinian schism. Thus, it is concerning that Palestinian politics are losing a man of his stature even if for a time. His absence comes at a moment in history, where Palestinians need to rally international support behind a unity government that includes Hamas, contrary to the international community’s wishes. His absence also comes while the peace process that he dedicated his life to suffers under the weight of settlements, checkpoints and Israeli violations, much like it did for most of his life.
Photograph: Saeb Erekat speaking to international media. Credit: Getty Images.