Palestinians Dissolve Peace Negotiating Team After the chief negotiator in the peace process with Israel resigned, President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the team that has provided legal and policy advice. The peacemaking apparatus had become deeply unpopular, but officials say it's now unclear who will represent them if talks resume.
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Future Cloudy As Palestinians Dissolve Peace Team

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Future Cloudy As Palestinians Dissolve Peace Team

Future Cloudy As Palestinians Dissolve Peace Team

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Leaders throughout the Arab world are trying to save their jobs. And that includes the leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have sought to appease would-be protesters in a time of uprisings across the Arab world. One thing Palestinians have done is dismantle their entire negotiating operation. It had become deeply unpopular after years of failed peace talks in the Mid East. But Palestinians say it is now unclear who would negotiate for them if and when - the peace process resumes. Sheera Frenkel has this story.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SHEERA FRENKEL: A small conference was held among officials in Ramallah, the West Bank capital, to address the range of problems currently facing the Palestinians. In the words of one attendee, it was a conference about how to prevent a revolution among Palestinians.

As the rumblings of change spread across the Arab world, Palestinian officials called for new elections next September, and they announced revived efforts for reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank and the Islamist militants of Hamas who rule the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also announced that he had disbanded the Negotiation Support Unit, the team of Palestinian advisors who provide legal and policy advice during the now moribund peace talks with Israel. That followed the resignation of Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian's chief negotiator for over a decade. He spoke to NPR in his first foreign interview since stepping down.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Negotiator): Palestinians are a rich society. Believe me, there are better people who will do the job. I'm a caretaker now. As I caretaker I will make sure that when I leave by the end of next March, I would not leave a vacuum.

FRENKEL: Few, however, are sure what he will leave behind. Or how Palestinians will even take part in a peace process now that they have dismantled the offices that handled the negotiations.

Erekat says he resigned in disgrace, because of leaks someone in his own office provided to Al-Jazeera, the popular Arabic satellite news channel. Thousands of documents - nicknamed the Palileaks - revealed much about the peace talks over the last decade. And they angered many here, who believed Erekat and his negotiating team were giving away too much in the talks with Israel.

Dr. Zakarai AlQuq is a professor at Al Quds University. He says he believes that Erekat's resignation was prompted in part by the broader turmoil in the Arab world.

Dr. ZAKARAI AL-QUQ (Al Quds University): The resignation of Saeb Erekat here it is one of the immediate repercussions of what is happening in the region and the Al-Jazeera leaks. But I think the Israelis are trying to find a sort of public relations outlet for them to blame on the Palestinians.

FRENKEL: Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that Israel is always eager to negotiate with Palestinians, adding that the current upheavals across the Arab world make the peace process more important than ever.

Mr. YIGAL PALMOR (Spokesman, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs): It is clear that all this shake, rattle and roll around us is, well, is bound to have some influence on people. And this conflict needs to find a solution on its own merit and not because of what happens abroad. OK? But all this regional context, of course, makes it maybe a little more relevant

FRENKEL: The corridors of Saeb Erekat's home and office are eerily quiet. Photos of Erekat with former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama line the walls, alongside those of other foreign leaders. Nowhere, however, is there a photo of the various Israeli leaders with whom Erekat has negotiated over the years.

Saeb Erekat says he does not blame Israel for the stalled peace process, but rather an American administration that was unable to push Israel to make concessions.

Mr. EREKAT: I had hope all the time that the U.S. would move from the squares of what's possible meaning for them what the prime minister of Israel can do, and what the prime minister of Israel can't do - to the squares of what's needed.

FRENKEL: The U.S. is still working for the resumption of peace talks, but Palestinians insist they will not sit down with their Israeli counterparts until there is a total freeze in Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In Ramallah, members of the Negotiation Support Unit have already begun leaving for jobs elsewhere. Xavier Abu Eid served on that team for more than five years.

Mr. XAVIER ABU EID: There's no peace process. What we've been waiting all this time is not only to have clear terms of reference to go back to negotiations, also to have a settlement freeze that Israel hasn't been able to implement.

FRENKEL: As he sits in a busy caf´┐Ż near the unit's headquarters, Eid says the Palestinians will eventually form another team to engage in peace talks. But he has little hope they will succeed.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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