Long-time Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat was announced on Friday as the man to open dialogue with his Israeli counterpart at meetings in Washington after three years of stalled peace negotiations.
Both Erakat and Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will meet US Secretary of State John Kerry for initial talks, the top US diplomat said at the end of four days of intense diplomacy as he consulted Palestinian and Israeli leaders from his base in Amman.
The 55-year-old Erakat, an academic whose perfect command of English is often spiced with humour, was part of every team to negotiate with Israel since 1991, with the notable exception of those who secretly hammered out the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Erakat rose to prominence as a media personality at the 1991 international peace conference in Madrid at which he wore the black-and-white chequered Palestinian headscarf.
Born in Jerusalem, he has been a key figure in the Palestinian political landscape, an indispensable briefer for foreign envoys and a suave tactician who can register indignation when necessary.
A member of the Palestinian parliament since 1996, Erakat was close to Yasser Arafat, historic leader of the Palestinian national movement, even though he did not follow Arafat into exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia before his return to Gaza in 1994.
In 2009, Erakat was elected to the central committee of the Fatah wing of Mahmud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and to the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
He was an architect of the negotiations on a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the failed Camp David summit in July 2000 to the talks launched in Washington in September 2010 which were interrupted after less than a month in a row over Israel’s continued settlement building.
Appointed in 2003 to head the PLO negotiating team, Erakat briefly resigned from the post in 2011 because of “responsibility for the theft of documents from his office,” papers which he said had been “adulterated”.
He was referring to more than 1,600 documents on the talks with Israel between 1999 and 2010, released in January 2011 by Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera and dubbed “The Palestine Papers”.
Palestinian officials worked to limit the damage caused by their publication, which showed Palestinian negotiators prepared to offer significant concessions without securing Israeli guarantees on key issues such as east Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.
Although the documents did not cause major turmoil in Palestinian public opinion, Erakat’s position was weakened at the time by announcements the alleged perpetrators of the leaks worked for the PLO negotiation team he headed.
He had said an investigation into the leaks pointed towards three nationals of US, British and French extraction being responsible.
A former journalist with the independent daily Al-Quds in east Jerusalem, Erakat holds a BA and an MA in Political Science from the University of San Francisco.
He also has a doctorate in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford in England, and he taught at An-Najah University in the West Bank town of Nablus from 1979 to 1991.
Erakat has written a dozen books and lives in the
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