A top Palestinian negotiator resigned after being excluded from yesterday's key Israeli-Palestinian summit, signaling growing tensions between Yasser Arafat and his new prime minister.
The negotiator, Saeb Erekat, an Arafat protege, declined to discuss his reasons for submitting a letter of resignation to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas on Friday.
Last month, Erekat was only reluctantly included in Abbas' new Cabinet, as minister in charge of negotiations with Israel.
In a clear slight, Abbas chose not to take Erekat along to his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday evening, the first top-level talks since Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in September 2000.
Instead, Abbas will be accompanied by Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and by his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.
The Palestinian Cabinet was to meet yesterday, ahead of the summit, and there was some expectation that Erekat would be persuaded to withdraw his resignation. Erekat, who has played a prominent role in peace talks in the past decade, has threatened before to step down over disagreements, but not followed through.
The resignation appeared to be linked both to the perceived slight and to tensions between Abbas and Arafat, who for decades resisted sharing power and only reluctantly agreed to naming a prime minister.
Israel and the US are boycotting Arafat, saying he is linked to terrorism, and an Israeli travel ban has confined Arafat to the West Bank town of Ramallah for more than a year.
Israel and the US consider Abbas, who has sharply denounced violence, as their negotiating partner.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Erekat stepped down because his new powers were undefined. "He doesn't know what he has the right to do and what he doesn't have the right to do," Amr said.
Israeli analyst Mark Heller said he believed the Arafat-Abbas rivalry also came into play.
"As an Arafat loyalist, he [Erekat] may have been acting with Arafat's encouragement to try to undermine Abu Mazen [Abbas] on the eve of the meeting with Sharon -- a meeting that may be important," Heller said.
Sharon, meanwhile, met with key advisers on Friday to prepare for the summit. The Palestinians said they would demand that Israel accept the "road map," an internationally backed plan for ending 31 months of violence and setting up a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians have accepted the plan, formally unveiled by international mediators just two weeks go, but Israel has posed 15 objections, mainly insisting that Palestinians crack down on violent groups before Israel makes a move.
Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, who was to join yesterday's talks, laid out tough starting points.
"We want to see what Abu Mazen is going to do, especially in terms of the war on terror," Lapid told Army Radio. "In the meantime, when we're being shelled from Gaza, I'm not sure that it's the right time to make gestures to the Palestinians."