3 Members of Palestinian Team Go to Tunis, Resignations in Hand

The apparent decision by three senior members of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks to resign is being seen here as a reflection of deep divisions between the Palestinian leadership in the administered territories and Palestine Liberation Organization officials in Tunis.

At the same time, the crisis is also being viewed by some as a tactical maneuver designed to pressure Israel into negotiating directly with the PLO.

Palestinian officials here and in Amman said Sunday that Faisal Husseini, Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat had resigned and were on their way to Tunis for direct talks with PLO leader Yasir Arafat.

Passing through Jordan on their way to PLO headquarters, the three would not comment directly on the reasons behind their resignations.

Instead, Ashrawi would only say, “There are serious internal Palestinian issues that have to be addressed, and they will be addressed in a responsible and discreet manner. It’s time to discuss these issues very frankly internally.”

Among the first Israeli officials to react to the announcement was Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, who expressed the hope Sunday that they would not resign after all.

Sarid warned that the continuous weakening of the PLO and its representatives in the administered territories would jeopardize the peace process and would create a political vacuum that would be filled by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the territories.

Sarid said the crisis reinforced his view that Israel should deal directly with the PLO.

But in various interviews Sunday he refused to confirm reports that he had met last month with Nabil Sha’ath, a close adviser to Arafat. The report was confirmed Sunday by Mahmoud Abbas, a senior PLO official.

Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli Arab who is known to have contacts with the PLO leadership, blamed Israel for the crisis within the Palestinian delegation, charging that Israel has not been forthcoming in its negotiations with the Palestinians.

TIME FOR ‘BREAKING OF TABOOS’?

The official reason for the impending resignations of the three negotiators was to protest their “becoming messengers without giving consideration to their own views.”

According to some reports, Palestinian sources say the dispute concerns the Palestinians’ written reply to the U.S. draft of a declaration of principles designed to provide guidelines for the peace negotiations.

Arafat is said to have been ready to show flexibility on the broad outlines of the declaration, but was reluctant to accept the Israeli proposal for an early granting of autonomy in the territories.

The local leaders, led by Faisal Husseini, on the other hand, wanted to go ahead with a gradual Palestinian takeover of responsibilities in the territories, while continuing the negotiations with Israel over major issues such as Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the territories.

Husseini’s views have become more and more unpopular, especially since the official head of the delegation, Haidar Abdel-Shafi, has become more hard-line and practically pulled himself out of the talks.

Along with Abdel-Shafi, representatives of the People’s (Communist) Party and the Democratic Front have boycotted the talks, leaving the more moderate Al Fatah faction of the PLO alone on the negotiating scene.

These growing internal difficulties are seen by some as the main cause of the resignations.

But some observers here expressed the view that the three would not resign at all, and that the crisis was created in order to force Arafat into straightening out the differences within the local leadership.

The crisis was also seen as a way of exerting pressure on Israel to start negotiating directly with the PLO.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said Sunday that although he supported in principle the current framework for the peace talks, if it turns out “that we have no partners among the residents of the territories, there will be no choice but to reconsider the situation and the breaking of taboos.”

His comment was understood to point to the possible need to negotiate directly with the PLO.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on the other hand, said at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet session that movement could be achieved in the negotiations with the Palestinians, but he placed the responsibility for achieving progress on the Palestinians themselves.

“Palestinians in the territories who seek peace should understand that in the absence of progress, they will lose the support of the people,” the prime minister said.

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