As Egypt tumult spreads, top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, resigns

The resignation of top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, comes as the Palestinian Authority has called for new elections in the wake of the people's revolution that overthrow Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

Eyad Baba/AP
Palestinian Hamas activists burn effigies with Israeli flags of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, former Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat following a broadcast by Al-Jazeera linking them to broad concessions made to Israel in peace talks, Jan. 26, 2011. Almost three weeks later, Saeb Erekat has resigned.

Top Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, has resigned after embarrassing depictions in media leaks of his posture towards Israel, saying he hopes his stepping down will set a model of transparency for the young Palestinian state-in-the-making.

Mr. Erekat has been a key player in negotiations with Israel since the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. But he said he bore personal responsibility for classified documents being ''stolen from my office'' so that they could be ''tampered with'' and used in broadcasts of the Al Jazeera satellite channel to show the Palestinian Authority (PA) making unprecedented concessions towards Israel.

''I can't advocate accountability and transparency all my life and then comes the biggest breach in Palestinian national security – the stealing of the documents from my office – and let it be business as usual,'' Erekat tells the Monitor. ''What I want to do is plant the seeds for the future of Palestinian officials. When officials make mistakes, they are out.''

The resignation comes at a time when the Egyptian revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak is sending tremors through the Middle East. Palestinian officials say the Egyptian revolution will add fuel to non-military Palestinian protests against Israel such as already take place against the separation barrier in the West Bank. And the Palestinian Authority announced Saturday it would hold new legislative and presidential elections by September, a step that had been expected but whose timing appeared to be triggered by the ouster of Mr. Mubarak.

Damaging leaked documents

Last month, Erekat accused Al Jazeera of taking part in a campaign to overthrow the Palestinian Authority after the Qatar-based station began to release 1,600 confidential documents known as the Palestine papers.

The leaked files angered many Palestinians, because they alleged that Erekat and other negotiators offered concessions that departed from the Palestinian consensus on a range of subjects, including ultra-sensitive ones such as Jerusalem and refugees. One document had Palestinian negotiators offering Israel to keep all of its East Jerusalem settlements with one exception, while another had the Palestinians proposing a return of 10,000 refugees annually over a 10-year period, far short of the full ''right of return'' for all refugees that Palestinian leaders have long officially advocated.

Erekat's resignation, which still must be accepted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will not have any immediate practical impact, because negotiations with Israel are not on the horizon. They broke down in September over Israel's refusal to renew a freeze on construction at West Bank settlements. There are now no known direct peace contacts.

Moreover, Erekat will remain an influential figure in Palestinian politics because he is retaining his seat on the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee and the ruling Fatah movement's central committee. Still, the resignation is seen as a nod to public anger at the PA over the depicted concessions.

''He can't stay in this position, because the Palestinian public is aware of all the facts in these documents,'' says Atieyeh Jawabra, a political scientist at the West Bank's al-Quds University. ''The Palestinain public opinion sees in these documents the concessions made on Jerusalem, borders, and settlements. In the Palestinian mind, these are things that must be stood up for.''

Fadil Hamdan, an Islamist member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, says: ''His resignation proves that these documents are genuine and this is a big moral problem for Erekat and the negotiating team.''

But Hani Masri, head of the Badael think-tank in Ramallah, stresses that the episode should not be viewed as an exercise in accountability. Erekat resigned because the documents were stolen from his office and not because of the concessions they entailed, he noted.

Election announcement triggered by events in Egypt?

The resignation of Egypt's Mubarak was greeted with joy among Palestinians, who viewed him as siding with Israel against them.

''I'm very, very happy and I congratulate the Egyptian people,'' says hardware store owner Ibrahim Khalifa. ''Mubarak behaved like the son of Israel. This should be the result for any dark leader.'' Much of the anger at Mubarak stemmed from his regime joining Israel in blockading the Gaza Strip in a bid to undermine its Hamas leaders. Egypt is also seen as having acquiesced in Israel's devastating military campaign in Gaza two years ago.

Mr. Hamdan, the legislator, says: ''If there is genuine democratic government in Egypt then Egypt will be a very strong supporter of Palestinian claims and will exercise strong pressure on Israel to end its hegemony over the Palestinians and its continued threats to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. If Egypt shifts to democracy and allies with Turkey and Iran, this may form a strong pressure on Israel to give up for peace and at least withdraw to the 1967 borders.''

Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement denies there is any connection between the announcement on holding of elections and the revolution in Egypt.

September had already been earmarked as the month when Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's plan to reach independence for Palestinians reaches its end. ''This is about the president in September going to his people and saying I have tried every measure but the occupation and the Israelis are not interested. What do you want to do next? Where should we go?'' said Husam Zomlot, executive deputy commissioner of Fatah's commission for international relations.

Although Mubarak was a close ally of Abbas and a de facto enemy of its rival Hamas, Mr. Zomlot says he is not concerned the dictator's removal will impact on the PA. ''A better Egypt; a powerful, stable democratic, fairer Egypt is definitely a better ally to the Palestinians,'' he said.

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