Longtime Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat Dies Of Complications From COVID-19 Often the voice of the Palestinians in peace talks with Israel, Erekat's pursuit of peace through negotiation never prevailed. He was 65.
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Longtime Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat Dies Of Complications From COVID-19

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Longtime Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat Dies Of Complications From COVID-19

Longtime Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat Dies Of Complications From COVID-19

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The man who served as the Palestinians' top peace negotiator died today. He was 65 years old. Saeb Erekat was being treated for COVID-19 in an Israeli hospital. For the last 25 years, he was a prominent spokesman for Palestinians. He led peace negotiations with Israel, even when many Palestinians urged him to give up. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: When Palestinian and Israeli leaders shook hands on the White House lawn in 1993, Saeb Erekat thought things would change. He reflected on that moment with NPR much later.

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SAEB EREKAT: I thought it was a turning point in our history. It was a new chapter. It was - I thought that life will never be the same for us, Palestinians and Israelis. Unfortunately, I was proven wrong.

ESTRIN: It was the beginning of the Oslo peace process. In 1995, Erekat was appointed chief Palestinian peace negotiator to hammer out the details of the interim peace agreement. Israel's chief negotiator was Joel Singer.

JOEL SINGER: I see him as a courageous Palestinian who devoted his life to reaching peace with Israel, peace on terms that would be acceptable to the Palestinian people. But yet, unlike other Palestinian groups that don't want to reach peace with Israel, he genuinely wanted to reach peace and never gave up.

ESTRIN: They were both educated in the U.S. and spoke a common language. Together, they drafted an agreement for limited Palestinian self-rule in some areas that Israel occupies. Palestinians hoped the agreement would help them establish a state of their own. But talks broke down in 2000, and violence has ebbed and flowed ever since. Erekat continued in two more rounds of peace talks. Palestinian Diana Buttu used to work with Erekat.

DIANA BUTTU: I will remember him as the person who tried - who tried.

ESTRIN: Erekat was sharp-tongued and highly critical of Israel. As peace efforts failed, Palestinians and Israelis grew farther apart, and many on both sides came to see talks as futile. Buttu thinks Erekat was willing to give away too much.

BUTTU: He was really wedded to this idea of - that negotiations were a useful tool, even at a time when others saw the light and saw that the negotiations process wasn't working. He was saying yes to things when he should have just walked out of the room.

ESTRIN: Many Israelis blame Erekat and Palestinian leaders for never saying yes to a final peace deal. In 2017, when Erekat was set to get a lung transplant in Israel, many Israelis symbolically tore up their organ donor cards, and he ended up having the surgery in the U.S. Last month, he was hospitalized in Israel with COVID-19. Israelis and Palestinians criticized him for seeking treatment in Israel. Peace did not come in his lifetime, something he reflected on in his conversation with NPR in 2010.

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EREKAT: We have come a long way. We have come a long way. We are different people. Unfortunately, we don't have peace.

ESTRIN: A new generation of Palestinian leaders may not opt to follow his footsteps in negotiating with Israel.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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