Palestinian minister quits after being left out of talks

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The Independent Online

The Palestinian minister in charge of negotiating with Israel resigned yesterday after the new Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, left him out of the team for his first meeting with Ariel Sharon, his Israeli counterpart.

Although the normally eloquent Saeb Erekat declined to comment publicly, he is reported to be furious that Mr Abbas – also known as Abu Mazen – preferred to be accompanied to tonight's talks by the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Ahmed Qurei, and his new security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

More doveish Palestinian politicians welcomed Mr Abbas's decision as a sign of his determination to distance himself from Yasser Arafat, who remains the President. They dismissed Mr Erekat as "Arafat's yes man", and interpreted his exclusion as part of the power struggle between the two leaders.

One official, who declined to be named, told The Independent that Mr Erekat was never an independent decision maker. "He preferred to negotiate in front of the television cameras," he said. "He travelled to many countries, but achieved nothing. Abu Mazen included him in the cabinet as a decoration. He never meant to give him a pivotal role."

Colleagues said Mr Erekat, a 48-year-old political science professor who took his PhD at Bradford University, had felt increasingly marginalised since Mr Abbas took office at the end of last month. Mr Erekat has served as a senior Palestinian negotiator since the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

Mr Abbas first dropped Mr Erekat as local government minister, a position he had held since 1994, then reluctantly appointed him minister of state in an effort to appease the President. His omission from this weekend's team was the last straw.

Sympathetic Palestinian officials quoted Mr Erekat as protesting that the delegation did not represent the "internal" leadership – those leaders who endured the Israeli occupation before "external" figures such as Mr Arafat, Mr Abbas and Mr Qurei returned from Tunis after the 1993 Oslo accords. Mr Erekat has often accused the former exiles of feathering their own nests at the expense of the Palestinian poor.

Mr Abbas asked Mr Erekat to freeze his resignation and said he would not accept it for another week. Palestinian sceptics said Mr Erekat might think again, though it would be hard for him to retract once news of the resignation became public.

One fellow minister defined it privately as a "Palestinian resignation". In other countries, he said, when a minister quits he rushes to the nearest microphone. When a Palestinian minister quits, he unplugs his telephone – and waits for people to beat a path to his door.

While leaders of Mr Arafat's Fatah movement did not spring to Mr Erekat's defence, they criticised Mr Abbas's readiness to meet Mr Sharon while Israeli tanks are still rolling into Palestinian towns.

Hatem Abdel Qader, a Jerusalem member of the Fatah steering committee, said they feared Mr Sharon would exploit the meeting for public relations purposes when he flies to Washington tomorrow for talks with President George Bush. "We are not against who is in the delegation," Mr Abdel Qader said, "but we are against the idea of holding a meeting at a time when Sharon never stops incursions and assassinations."

Israeli officials believe Mr Abbas shared these reservations. It was only pressure from the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that induced him to meet Mr Sharon, they say – hardly a promising start.