Saeb the Noncorrupt Palestinian
I first met Saeb Erekat in the 1980s. He was head of the Public Relations Department at A Najah University and was close to the pro-Fatah Shabibeh movement. I met Saeb at the offices of Al Quds newspaper at the end of Salah Eddine Street in East Jerusalem. He was given the task of writing the daily editorials of the wide-selling newspaper. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Saeb was often available to media and journalists who were looking for an English-speaking Palestinian.
Saeb would move up the political chain to become a regular icon in almost all political events, especially those that had to do with foreigners. He never left his home in Jericho and when a nasty Saudi movement tried to claim that Palestinian leaders were corrupt, he invited all to visit him at the same home where he has always lived. He was a Palestinian patriot but he always spoke positively about peace and would often talk about the need for peace for his children and now grandchildren.
Saeb’s kunya (a nickname in Arab culture derived from one’s child’s name) was Abu Ali, after his son Ali. But his daughter Dalal Iriqat, vice president for international relations and a lecturer at the American University, is better known than Ali or his daughter Salam, who was prominent in the last few weeks because of her role as a medical doctor.
Palestinians and the world remember Saeb during the Madrid Peace Conference when he spread the keffiyeh on his shoulders as a sign of the need to recognize Palestinian nationalism. He had been involved in the First Intifada with Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal Husseini, both of whom were prevented from participating in the actual talks in Madrid, so he felt he had to make that visible sign as a way of reminding the world of the sacrifices and aspirations of Palestinians.
Saeb has since had a personal relationship with almost all Israeli and world leaders. As head of the negotiating team, he directed the legal and negotiation experts at the Negotiations Affairs Department, which has been a constant source of accurate and comprehensive documentation of Israeli violations and international references to issues related to the Palestinian cause.
While he was busy with everything to do with the negotiations, Saeb became a member and then secretary-general of the Executive Committee of the PLO. That position gave him standing with Arab and international leaders and as a trusted confidant of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, he was able to help translate and transmit the national Palestinian position and became a well-known face on the local and international front.
Despite this high position within the Palestinian leadership, Saeb was often a guest at Israeli events, including peace movements and the Herzliya Forum. He had no problem speaking truth to power in a moderate and reasonable way.
It is not known who will replace Erekat within the PLO’s executive committee. While Hanan Ashrawi and Ziad Abu Amer are the most senior and well-respected members, the position will most likely go to a hardened member of the Fatah movement. The only other member of Fatah on the executive committee is Azzam al-Ahmad, who was the lead person in the reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas. Some suggest that Rawhi Fattouh, the former speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and former president in the 60-day period after the death of Arafat. Fattouh, who participated with Jibril Rajoub in the recent reconciliation event in Istanbul, is now the head of the Diaspora Department of the PLO.
However, the more important position that Erekat had as head of the negotiations team will most likely be given to Majdi Khalidi, the senior diplomatic adviser to President Abbas. Khalidi has been more visible of late, writing and being interviewed in various media outlets about the Palestinian position and especially encouraging the world community to support the idea of an international peace conference that the Palestinian president is proposing for early in 2021.
Saeb Erekat had lung problems for some time and in October 2017 he was the recipient of a lung transplant. The operation, conducted in the state of Virginia in the United States, was successful, and after recuperation, Erekat returned and carried out his duties as before.
Three years after the lung transplant, Erekat contracted the coronavirus. Initially, he stayed home in Jericho but when his condition worsened, he was taken by ambulance to the Israeli Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. One of his last phone calls was with Nasser Laham, editor of the leading Palestinian pro-PLO Maan News and Knesset member Ahmad Tibi. He told them that his American doctors insisted on him being treated at Hadassah rather than in Jordan.
Nearly three weeks after that ambulance trip from Jericho, Saeb passed away, leaving behind a supportive family and a larger Palestinian people who will miss him and his efforts for peace and justice in Palestine.