Crisis averted || Abbas promises Kerry not to pull out of peace talks
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denies threats to resign and cause collapse of talks over new settlements.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last Tuesday evening phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over worrying statements by chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat. For days, Erekat harshly condemned Israel’s announcement of a wave of settlement construction that accompanied the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners.
Senior Israeli officials said the Palestinians were notified a week prior that Israel was going to announce new construction in the settlements. The Palestinians responded with anger and frustration. In one of the negotiating meetings with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the Prime Minister’s envoy, Isaac Molho, Erekat threatened that he and his fellow negotiator, Mohammad Shtayyeh, would resign in protest if new settlement construction was carried out.
In another meeting with Livni and Molho, Erekat threatened the day after the announcement on settlement construction that he would call a press conference and publically resign from the peace talks. The U.S. envoy to the negotiations, Martin Indyk, after having spoken to Erekat and to the Israeli team, met last Sunday with Abbas and expressed his concern. Abbas told Indyk that though the Palestinians are furious over Israel’s forthcoming settlement announcement they would not withdraw from the talks.
Tuesday saw another meeting between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams. The Palestinians were told that the next day Israeli would announce new construction. Erekat fumed. He again threatened to resign and collapse the talks. The Americans wanted to make sure they did not have a full blown crisis on their hands and so Kerry hurried to call Abbas.
Senior Israeli and U.S. officials have confirmed what Indyk and Kerry said after speaking to Abbas, namely, that though the Palestinians severely condemn the new construction, they would not pull out of the talks. Abbas said the Palestinians promised the United States to carry on negotiations for nine months and that they intended to keep that promise.
Although the Palestinians knew the announcement on settlements was coming, they expected neither that construction would start immediately nor the scope of the plans – some 5000 new housing units. The Americans were also not aware the number would be so high. When the news broke on Wednesday evening a storm befell the Palestinian presidential compound in Ramallah. Senior officials of the Palestinian Liberation Organization demanded to cease negotiations and attacked Erekat.
On Thursday, Channel 10 and Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported Erekat tendered his resignation before Abbas but that the latter rejected it. What actually transpired was a little different. According to Israeli officials, Erekat did not deliver a resignation letter, but instead tossed out a verbal statement at a PLO meeting.
The officials said Erekat wanted publicity for internal Palestinian purposes: On the one hand to relieve that pressure on him from within the PLO and on the other to calm the public outcry.
Erekat may be the veteran negotiator on the Palestinian side but he is also the veteran “resigner.” Journalist Matthew Kalman wrote a blog post over the weekend detailing 20 years of Erekat resignations. The first time had taken place way back when in August of 1993. There had been more over the years but Erekat is still here.
Thursday night, after the storm in a teacup brought on by the reported resignation, Erekat hurried to deny he had quit. A short while later, senior officials with the U. S. State department issued their own clarification.
“We have been informed by the Palestinian side that they remain committed to the negotiations for the nine months agreed upon and that they fully intend to participate in the next round of negotiations,” one official said.
Erekat, Livni, and Molho will continue to meet, at least for the next six months.