Revered peace en­voy in poor health

Pales­tinian ne­go­tia­tor awaits a life­sav­ing lung trans­plant, but odds are against him.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Noga Tarnopol­sky Tarnopol­sky is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

JERUSALEM — Saeb Erekat, the leg­endary Pales­tinian leader and chief ne­go­tia­tor with Is­rael for the last two decades, is renowned for his per­sis­tence against all odds and for a steel-trap le­gal mind.

But the chal­lenge he faces to­day may be his most daunt­ing. At 62, Erekar is suf­fer­ing from ad­vanced pul­monary fi­bro­sis, a de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tion that can be cured only by a lung trans­plant.

He re­quested to be added to the wait­ing list in both Is­rael and the United States, but the odds are long. In Is­rael, Erekat, like other for­eign­ers, will qual­ify for a do­nated lung only if it does not match the needs of any Is­raeli pa­tient.

In re­cent months, friends and col­leagues re­port see­ing a steep de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in his health. Erekat has lost a sig­nif­i­cant amount of weight and ap­pears in pub­lic teth­ered to an oxy­gen tank. He has ad­mon­ished his as­so­ciates to re­frain from speak­ing about his con­di­tion.

Few peo­ple have been more cru­cial to the Pales­tinian cause than Erekat.

Uri Savir, Is­rael’s for­mer chief ne­go­tia­tor for the Oslo peace ac­cords, has known Erekat since 1994.

“Saeb is a bril­liant man. A brave man. A man of peace, very mod­er­ate, with all the nor­mal cri­tique of the oc­cu­pa­tion,” he said. “I don’t think he’s re­ally a po­lit­i­cal an­i­mal, but he ended up in a top lead­er­ship role be­cause his par­tic­u­lar tal­ents were es­sen­tial for the team.”

Those tal­ents, said Savir, who is the co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace, in­clude “an un­usual gift for ne­go­ti­a­tion, an un­canny abil­ity to for­mu­late the pre­cise lines nec­es­sary for a le­gal doc­u­ment — in this he is sec­ond to none — and an ex­tremely rare abil­ity to rep­re­sent his leader, who was Yasser Arafat, and rep­re­sent mat­ters to him.”

Eighty-nine Is­raelis are on the wait­ing list for a lung trans­plant, said Dr. Ta­mar Ashke­nazi, di­rec­tor of the trans­plant center at Is­rael’s Min­istry of Health. Last year, 50 pa­tients re­ceived do­nated lungs.

Ashke­nazi said that in the event an avail­able or­gan has no match in Is­rael, she will reach out to the de­ceased’s fam­ily and re­quest per­mis­sion, above and be­yond the le­gal ne­ces­sity, to of­fer the or­gan to for­eign­ers.

Erekat, who is of av­er­age height, suf­fers yet an­other dis­ad­van­tage.

“I have no idea why, but we have many tall donors here,” Ashke­nazi said, not­ing that height is a cru­cial fac­tor for match­ing lungs. “A tall pa­tient might wait two weeks, and a shorter per­son can wait two years.”

The order of trans­plant prece­dence is de­ter­mined solely by med­i­cal cri­te­ria.

Khaled Abu Toameh, an ex­pert on Pales­tinian af­fairs who has known Erekat for 25 years, said his “ill­ness has been an open se­cret. You could tell by look­ing at him.”

Erekat’s phys­i­cal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion comes laced with irony. As his body has suc­cumbed to ill­ness, his po­lit­i­cal stature has only grown.

“For one,” Abu Toameh said, “It is im­por­tant to un­der­score that his name has never been as­so­ci­ated with cor­rup­tion. Ever.”

“In re­cent years his po­si­tion has got­ten a lot stronger,” Abu Toameh said. “He’s be­come the lead­ing can­di­date to re­place Abu Mazen,” an­other name for Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas, 82. “Among Pales­tini­ans he is con­sid­ered the most prom­i­nent sym­bol of the Oslo process, and he’s taken a lot of flak for be­ing the flag bearer of on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions and con­tacts with Is­rael.”

In part, Erekat’s pop­u­lar­ity can be at­trib­uted to re­newed Pales­tinian en­thu­si­asm for the peace process he spear­headed. On Thurs­day, a poll re­leased by Tel Aviv Univer­sity’s Tami Stein­metz Center for Peace Re­search and the Pales­tinian Center for Pol­icy and Sur­vey Re­search showed that 52% of Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip sup­ported the two-state so­lu­tion, an in­crease of 8 per­cent­age points since De­cem­ber. Fifty-three per­cent of Is­raelis, a de­cline of 2 points, agreed.

A peace process wait­ing for redemp­tion may be await­ing only the re­newed vigor of one of its most de­voted pro­po­nents.

Jaa­far Ashtiyeh AFP/Getty Images

CHIEF Pales­tinian ne­go­tia­tor Saeb Erekat, shown in March, “is a bril­liant man. A brave man. A man of peace, very mod­er­ate,” a for­mer Is­raeli ne­go­tia­tor said.

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