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Palestinian sources: Erakat resigns as chief negotiator

From Kelly Wallace

Saeb Erakat
Saeb Erakat

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A surprise resignation by Saeb Erakat comes as Israelis and Palestinians prepare for high-level talks. CNN's Kelly Wallace reports (May 16)
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Saeb Erakat handed in his letter of resignation as the Palestinian minister in charge of negotiations with Israel, Palestinian official sources said Friday, just before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas hold their highly symbolic, landmark meeting.

Seen by many as the public face of the Palestinian Authority, Erakat -- who has held the negotiator position since the 1990s -- handed in the letter to Abbas and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat Thursday, the sources said.

It is not clear why Erakat, a close Arafat loyalist, made the move. In a phone interview with CNN, Erakat refused to say why he chose to resign his post. He will remain involved in politics, maintaining his position as Palestinian council member representing the city of Jericho.

"I don't want to comment right now," Erakat told CNN, adding that his decision was based on "a lot of things."

Palestinian official sources told CNN that Erakat was "fed up" with the current Palestinian leadership, and believes the Palestinian people "deserve better."

The move comes as Abbas prepares to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Joining Abbas, who is commonly known as Abu Mazen, at the Saturday night meeting will be his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan and Ahmed Qorei, Palestinian Legislative Council spokesman, who is widely known as Abu Ala -- but not Erakat, the man who has been in the vanguard of talks with Israel for years.

Israeli media are quoting unnamed senior Palestinian officials who say that Erakat was enraged by Abbas' decision not to include Erakat at the Saturday session, which will represent the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since September 2000, and the start of the latest Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Erakat dismissed such reports, calling them "nonsense" and said he turned in his resignation before he even knew whether he would be attending the Saturday meeting.

"I supported this meeting," Erakat told CNN. "I urged Abu Mazen to meet with Sharon."

With this resignation taking effect in a week, it is also unclear if events could change over the next several days, resulting in Erakat's decision to retract his resignation.

Abbas will hold his first meeting in Gaza of his Cabinet ministers Saturday at 5:00 a.m. EDT (12 noon EDT), Palestinian sources told CNN. The Cabinet ministers are expected to remain in Gaza for five days, the sources said.

Erakat has previously mentioned the toll his position has taken on his family life.

First summit for more than two years

The Sharon-Abbas meeting will be the first Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2 1/2 years.

Palestinian sources have told CNN that the road map to Middle East peace will be the topic of discussion at the Sharon-Abbas meeting. Abbas is expected to urge Sharon to embrace the plan, which has not been accepted by Israel. Abbas is expected to demand that until Israel accepts the road map and pulls troops out of Palestinian towns, the Palestinians cannot rein in radical groups, such as Hamas.

Israeli sources say Sharon's message will be that Israel will not take serious steps regarding the road map until it sees proof that Abbas is dismantling and disarming Palestinian militant groups. The Israelis also want to see several changes made to the road map.

The Israeli government is not formally commenting on Erakat's decision to step down, calling the matter an "internal Palestinian issue," a senior Israel official told CNN.

"Who they put in... and who is going to replace him is of less consequence than whether this government is going to take real action," the senior Israeli official, who did not want to be identified, told CNN.

Sharon is traveling next week to the United States, where he will meet with President Bush and discuss the road map.

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