London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), said that President Mahmoud Abbas had personally entrusted him with heading the delegation for the direct negotiations, which were launched at the Fifth Summit in Washington on the 2nd of September. Erekat was speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat in response to press reports suggesting that there is a behind-the-scenes power struggle between him and Nabil Shaath, member of the Central Committee of Fatah, and the Commissioner of the Department of Foreign Relations, regarding who will preside over the negotiations, when Mahmoud Abbas is not present.
Another summit will be held the day after tomorrow in Sharm el-Sheikh, between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the second session of the direct negotiations, under the auspices of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. special peace envoy George Mitchell. The two leaders will meet the following day in Jerusalem, in a bilateral meeting, and arrange to hold a fourth bilateral summit in the Palestinian city of Jericho, in the Jordan Valley. This follows the first proposed summit in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session.
Erekat said that “Dr Nabil Shaath is a dear brother, and he is the Commissioner for External Relations in Fatah, and will be a member of the negotiating team”. He called on various parties “not to engage in marginal issues… and to focus efforts on the key matters, namely Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, the release of prisoners, Israeli captives and other key issues”.
Shaath also denied the existence of a conflict of this nature. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This is nonsense and untrue…there is no conflict of any kind…in fact there is only one stance”. He stressed that Erekat will stand at the helm of the Palestinian delegation when it comes to ‘detailed negotiations’, whilst clarifying that Mahmoud Abbas would conduct the negotiations in general.
Shaath said “I have not participated actively in detailed negotiations since 1995…and I have no desire, not even remotely, to go back to them…I already have enough tasks within the framework of my post as Fatah Commissioner for External Relations”. He went on to say that “However, if Mahmoud Abbas asks me to participate in an event such as that in Washington or Sharm-El-Sheikh, I will not hesitate to attend and participate”.
However, the media has suggested that a muted conflict is still ongoing within the Palestinian side, about who will preside over the Palestinian negotiation team, following the launch of negotiations in Washington. Anonymous Palestinian sources were quoted as saying that members of the Palestinian leadership were divided over Erekat and Shaath, as both are members of the Fatah Central Committee. Both also have a long history of leadership, and negotiation delegations, with the Israelis and the Americans. According to local media, those in support of Erekat assert that he is the primary candidate for the position because he currently serves as chief negotiator in the PLO, whilst those in support of Shaath point out that he has a longer history, and has held ministerial posts, such as Minister of Information, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, under the leadership of both Mahmoud Abbas, and the late President Yasser Arafat. Yet a third member of the Central Committee denied the existence of any conflict, or competition. The member, who requested to remain anonymous, stressed that “there will be no delegation, in the true sense of the word…for Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is the one who will direct the negotiations with Netanyahu, leaving details to their respective key aides, Erekat and Yitzhak Molkho. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, will also be among those who will be playing a role”.