'Fed up,' a top Palestinian bolts

A former top Arafat adviser talks about obstacles to the US-backed peace process.

Since the first Oslo Accord was reached nearly a decade ago, the Israelis have had at least a half-dozen chief negotiators directing peace talks with the Palestinians.

But the Palestinians have essentially had just one: Saeb Erekat, a political scientist who became the man the world turns to in order to hear the Palestinian viewpoint packaged into lucid, quotable quips. Dr. Erekat resigned last week, "fed up," he says, not just with the state of the road-map peace plan, but with the regime-change paradigm that the White House is trying to imprint upon the Palestinian Authority (PA).

"Is this regime change that's peaceful? If it's peaceful, then please, hold elections," says Erekat, who spins such a snappy English that it can be hard for reporters' pens to keep pace.

Having earned a master's in political science at San Francisco State University and a doctorate from Bradford University in England, he speaks English more handily than almost anyone else in the PA - and his is a voice that he's betting will be missed. After this week's suicide bombings against Israelis, he says, it was he whom international television networks kept calling in search of a Palestinian official to condemn the violence.

"The Americans must understand: Our situation is different from Iraq and Afghanistan. We live next to Israel, and that means we expect democracy," Erekat says in an interview in his offices here, which initially served as the Ministry of Local Government, and later, as the Ministry of Negotiations.

Now, staffers shrug, they're not sure what the building represents at all - and they are as keen as the next person to know what Erekat is planning to do now.

Most probably, he says, he will launch a campaign demanding that Palestinian elections be held in six months. They have not been held since 1994, when Yasser Arafat was, as a matter of course, elected president.

US pressure on the Palestinian Authority to choose a prime minister to wield power instead of Arafat - primarily at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - led to the appointment last month of Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Although both men are known to be close to Arafat, Mr. Abbas has been trying to set himself and his new cabinet apart in a bid to get back to negotiations, which Sharon has refused to conduct with Arafat.

When Abbas and Sharon met on Saturday night along with their inner posse of peace negotiators - the first such meeting after 2-1/2 years of abject violence - Erekat was noticeably left off the invitation list. Miffed, according to most media reports, he resigned.

But Erekat says that has nothing to do with it - and that this decision was long in coming. He says he can't be too specific about the precise reasons - "I don't want to harm anyone," he says. But he shows an obvious frustration with the concept of installing Abbas, an unelected official, as prime minister.

"The Palestinians deserve better leadership," says Erekat, a tall, portly man who has towered over Arafat for years when they appeared together before television cameras.

He has traded in his red-rimmed glasses for black ones, and has lost his salt-and-pepper hair to a white fuzz, all adding to the professorial demeanor that makes him seem older than a man in his late 40s. "I looked at the internal dynamics taking shape and I realized, you know, 'Run!' "

Run from office, presumably, but many wonder if he also might intend to run for office - an important office - in the near future. He still holds a seat on the Palestinian Legislative Council, where he represents the place that bills itself as "the oldest city in the world." He points out that opinion polls show that 14 percent of Palestinians recognize him as one of their leaders; few but Arafat have been able to muster anything more than single-digit ratings.

He is keen to show that his decision to resign is not based on some purported fealty to Arafat. He even hints at widespread corruption among his colleagues, claiming to have forgone the big villas, fancy cars, and other perks that most senior PA officials have been able to secure for themselves. And after years in the inner circle, he is trying to recast himself as outside the corridors of power, calling it an "exclusive club" he is not really part of because, unlike Arafat and other senior Palestine Liberation Organization officials, he didn't return with them "from Yemen or Tunis."

Indeed, the son of a man who founded a bus company, Erekat has lived most of his life here in Jericho, where he consistently wears a suit when out talking to constituents, as he did on Monday, despite the burning sun and sticky humidity that comes from living at the lowest point on earth.

"I'm not an Arafat loyalist. I'm loyal to my people and to the peace process," he says. "Peace is doable. I've been to peace. I've been to life after peace."

For peace to be brought within reach again, he says, Sharon must accept the fundamental outlines of the road map. To Erekat, the best ideas in it include making "the quartet" - an informal group composed of the US, United Nations, European Union, and Russia - the judge of when the next steps should be taken in the peace process.

Erekat says he advised Abbas that he should not go into the details of the road map with Sharon "without Sharon's acceptance [of the map] as a whole."

But these days, the new Palestinian prime minister is not likely to be listening to advice from Erekat.

"Any prime minister has the right to choose his cabinet," says Sadi al-Krunz, the minister of transportation. "He sent his resignation to the media before he sent it to Abu Mazen, and this hurt him and he said, 'He's supposed to talk to me first.' "

Erekat is not the first Palestinian cabinet minister to resign. The most prominent of them was Hanan Ashrawi, who left office several years ago because she could not reconcile her reputation as a human rights activist with her membership in Arafat's cabinet. On the day Erekat resigned, he says, he received a condolence call from her.

"She called me and she cried and said: 'How did you put up with it all these years?' I said: 'I realized what you realized five years ago.' "

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