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Palestinian Negotiator Resigns Post

After being excluded from a team set to meet today with Israeli leader, Saeb Erekat steps down.

May 17, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

JERUSALEM — Laying yet another stumbling block on the bumpy road to Mideast peace, leading Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned his post on the eve of talks with the Israeli government, a Palestinian official said Friday.

Erekat tendered his resignation Thursday after new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas excluded him from a team of aides scheduled to meet tonight with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Although neither side is expecting to come away with major peace concessions, the meeting will be the first such high-level encounter between Israel and the Palestinians since the Palestinian uprising began 31 months ago.

Envoys from around the world, especially the United States, have been pressuring both governments to resume talks and begin implementing a three-phase, internationally designed peace plan, known as the road map, unveiled last month.

Erekat, who helped draft the 1993 Oslo peace accords and has been a chief negotiator for the Palestinians since, apparently felt snubbed.

"He had his reasons, which can be understood," said Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr in a statement confirming Erekat's intention to step down. Amr suggested, however, that Erekat might reverse his decision after a Cabinet meeting this morning to discuss this latest hitch in Palestinian efforts to rebuild their government -- long plagued by influence peddling and corruption.

Amr said Abbas had not yet accepted the resignation.

Erekat, 48, was born in Jerusalem and lectured in political science at An Najah University in the West Bank before embarking on a career that would propel him onto the world stage. He is a close ally of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and has spearheaded charges that Israel is dragging its feet on implementation of the road map.

The peace plan calls for an immediate withdrawal by Israeli troops from forward positions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and Palestinian statehood by 2005. On their side, the Palestinians must dismantle militant groups responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and armed attacks against Israelis.

Israel says Arafat has incited some terrorist attacks, an allegation he denies, and is striving to sideline him. Palestinians, meanwhile, still have a soft spot for the former guerrilla fighter, and analysts insist Abbas will need Arafat's backing to rein in militants and move peace efforts forward.

The resignation of an Arafat loyalist such as Erekat seemed to suggest that Arafat and Abbas supporters were at odds.

In a further reminder of the intractable nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli security forces barricaded cobblestone corridors in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday and barred Muslim men under 40 from entering the Temple Mount -- known to Muslims as Haram al Sharif -- for Friday prayers.

The move came after an Israeli official said earlier in the week that Jews too would soon be allowed to pray at the site. That angered Muslim leaders and sparked fears of a violent backlash.

"The time is close, much closer than one thinks, when Jews will be able to pray on this holy site," Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told the Israeli Parliament.

Jews honor the Temple Mount as the ancient site of the First and Second Temples, and they pray at the Western Wall just below, while Muslims consider the hilltop compound the spot where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

During Friday prayers, thousands of Muslims swarm into the Old City, past women selling spearmint sprigs and almonds, to pray at the compound's Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque.

"This itself is a catalyst. It creates friction when they start restricting people," Faez Shweki, 52, said Friday as he held a colorful prayer mat and waved at a line of Israeli security forces blocking young men from entering the walled compound.

All non-Muslims, including tourists, have been banned from the site since Sept. 28, 2000, when Sharon visited the Dome of the Rock to demonstrate Israeli control. The protests that ensued escalated into the Israeli military incursions and Palestinian terrorist attacks that characterize the conflict today.

"Jews are not allowed to come in. This is the limit," Shweki said of the security minister's remarks. "Even if I were 100 years old, I would be willing to fight against them praying here ... even if a massacre occurred."

Israeli police are also bracing for rallies today to protest the arrests this week of 15 leaders from the Jewish state's most powerful Arab organization, the Islamic Movement.

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