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Future Cloudy As Palestinians Dissolve Peace Team

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned in the wake of the leak of thousands of documents to Al Jazeera. But some say his resignation was also prompted in part by the broader turmoil in the Arab world.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned in the wake of the leak of thousands of documents to Al Jazeera. But some say his resignation was also prompted in part by the broader turmoil in the Arab world.

As popular uprisings continue to spread across the Middle East, Palestinian leaders have made a number of moves aimed at appeasing would-be protesters in the West Bank.

Among those is the dismantling of their entire peacemaking apparatus, which has become deeply unpopular after years of failed peace talks. Palestinian officials say it is now unclear who would negotiate for them if the peace process resumes.

This week, a small conference was held among officials in Ramallah, the West Bank capital, to address the range of problems facing the Palestinians. In the words of one attendee, it was a conference about how to prevent a revolution among Palestinians.

Palestinian officials called for new elections next September, and they announced revived efforts for reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank and the Islamist militants of Hamas who rule the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also announced that he had disbanded the Negotiation Support Unit, the team that provides legal and policy advice during the now moribund peace talks with Israel. The move followed the resignation of Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' chief negotiator for more than a decade.

"Palestinians are a rich society. Believe me, there are better people who will do the job," Erekat told NPR in his first foreign interview since stepping down. "I am a caretaker now. As a caretaker, I will make sure that when I leave by the end of next March, I will not leave a vacuum."

Reasons Behind The Resignation

Few, however, are sure what he will leave behind — or how Palestinians will even take part in a peace process now that they have dismantled the offices that handled the negotiations.

Erekat says he resigned in disgrace, because of leaks someone in his own office provided to Al Jazeera, the popular Arabic satellite news channel. Thousands of documents — nicknamed the PaliLeaks — revealed much about the peace talks over the last decade. They angered many who believed Erekat and his negotiating team were giving away too much in the talks with Israel.

Zakaria al-Qaq, a professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, says he believes that Erekat's resignation was prompted in part by the broader turmoil in the Arab world.

"The resignation of Saeb Erekat here it is one of the immediate repercussions of what is happening in the region and the Jazeera leaks," he said. "But I think the Israelis are trying to find a sort of public relations outlet for them [to] blame the Palestinians."

Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that Israel is always eager to negotiate with Palestinians, adding that the current upheavals across the Arab world make the peace process more important than ever.

"It is clear that all this shake, rattle and roll around us is ... well, is bound to have some influence on people," Palmor says. "This conflict needs to find a solution on its own merit and not because of what happens abroad, OK? But all this regional context, of course, makes it maybe a little more relevant."

The American Role

Though he has several months left in the job, the corridors of Erekat's home and office are eerily quiet.

Photos of Erekat with former President Clinton and President Obama line the walls, alongside those of other foreign leaders. Nowhere, however, is there a photo of the various Israeli leaders with whom Erekat has negotiated over the years.

Erekat does not blame Israel for the stalled peace process, but rather a U.S. administration that was unable to push Israel to make concessions.

"I had hope all the time that the U.S. will move from the squares of what's possible — meaning, to them, what the prime minister of Israel can do, and what the prime minister of Israel can't do — to the squares of what's needed," he says.

The U.S. is still working for the resumption of peace talks, but Palestinians insist they will not sit down with their Israeli counterparts until there is a total freeze in Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Little Hope

In Ramallah, members of the Negotiation Support Unit have already begun leaving for jobs elsewhere.

"There is no peace process. What we have been waiting [for] all this time is not only to have clear terms of reference to go back to negotiations, [but] also to have a settlement freeze that Israel [hasn't] been able to implement," says Xavier Abu Eid, who served on the team for more than five years.

As he sits in a busy cafe near the unit's headquarters, Eid says the Palestinians will eventually form another team to engage in peace talks. But he has little hope they will succeed.

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