JERICHO, WEST BANK - Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator who resigned Saturday after a massive leak of documents from his office, said Tuesday that he did not leave because of the substance of the leaks but because they happened on his watch.
Excerpts from the documents released last month by the al-Jazeera satellite television channel showed Palestinian negotiators discussing significant concessions on the issues of East Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees during talks in 2008. The revelations caused a storm of controversy among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world.
Erekat, whom al-Jazeera commentators accused of selling out to the Israelis and who is battling to preserve his reputation at home, said in an interview in his Jericho office that by stepping down, he wanted to set an example of accountability.
"When the most complicated, deep breach that ever happened in Palestinian national security history happened in my office, people expect me to go on with business as usual?" he said. "I'm making myself pay the price for the mistake I committed, my negligence. These are the ethics and the standards. Palestinian officials need to start putting them in their minds."
Erekat said the documents had been illicitly obtained from the laptop computer of an employee in the Palestine Liberation Organization's Negotiations Affairs Department, which Erekat led. After a Palestinian investigative committee determined that the material was stolen from his office, Erekat said, he promptly stepped down. He said he was pressing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has still not responded, to accept the resignation.
Al-Jazeera said it had obtained about 1,600 documents, including minutes of negotiating sessions and meetings that showed Palestinian negotiators offering to let Israel annex all but one of the neighborhoods it has built in East Jerusalem and discussing limited quotas for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
The revelations, which ran counter to public Palestinian pronouncements, threw Erekat and other officials on the defensive. He said Tuesday that the material had been presented selectively and out of context.
Still, Erekat said, the substance of the concessions did not come as a surprise to Palestinians because he had consistently outlined his negotiating positions in speeches, TV appearances and articles.
Erekat said he had talked about a Palestinian state along Israel's 1967 borders, with "minor and agreed land swaps" that would trade some Jewish settlements in the West Bank for land ceded by Israel. He said he had talked about a "just and agreed" solution to the refugee issue, meaning that any return of refugees would have to be acceptable to Israel.
"When I said to the Palestinian public that the swaps will include parts of Jerusalem, they know what I'm talking about," Erekat said. "When you say a just and agreed solution" to the refugee problem, he asked, "with whom do you agree? With the Chinese?"
Erekat, 55, a senior negotiator since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, was appointed head of the negotiations department in 2003. He said that he would continue serving as a member of the executive committee of the PLO and the central committee of the ruling Fatah party in the West Bank, but that he would no longer be "involved personally" in negotiations.
Greenberg is a special correspondent.