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Middle East: Arafat Likely To Delay Call For Palestinian Statehood

Jerusalem, 26 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After long promising to declare Palestinian statehood when the Oslo interim peace period expires May 4, Yasser Arafat now appears set to officially postpone his declaration until at least after Israeli elections later this month.

The Palestinian President is convening the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Gaza City tomorrow to debate whether or not to put off the declaration of statehood on May 4, which for years Arafat has called the "sacred date" upon which Palestinians would achieve an independent state.

The meeting of the 124-member Central Council of the PLO could consider the question at length. But analysts say that the outcome is almost certain to see Arafat postponing his declaration while assuring the Palestinians that what appears to be a setback for their aspirations has in fact brought them significant gains.

Khalil Shikaki, a political analyst at the independent Center for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus, told our correspondent last week in the West Bank that Arafat will use tomorrow's meeting to issue instructions to prepare further for statehood. But, Shikaki said, Arafat will stop short of deciding to declare independence from Israel on May 4.

"He may do nothing except to give instructions for Palestinian institutions to meet and put in place constitutional forms and instruments needed for the functioning of a state ... this will send a signal that he is buying more time to allow the Israeli election period to pass without provocation from the Palestinian side and [is] giving himself time to decide [later]."

Shikaki said that such steps would enable Arafat to satisfy Palestinians that he is pushing ahead toward statehood without taking a step which would throw the peace process into its worst crisis in years just ahead of Israeli general elections due May 17.

Analysts say that any declaration of Palestinian statehood now would only strengthen the re-election chances of Arafat's hardest-line opponent in the peace process, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The election pits Netanyahu against two major challengers seen as more moderate on the peace process: Ehud Barak of the Labor-led One Israel coalition and Centrist Party candidate Yitzhak Mordechai.

A recent opinion poll taken by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies indicates that most Palestinians are now ready to accept postponing statehood despite the appearance that Arafat will break a promise to them by doing so.

The poll showed that 48 percent of Palestinians favor putting off the declaration, while fewer -- 43 percent -- favored declaring independence. The poll also showed that number of Palestinians who want to put off declaring statehood has risen compared to two months ago.

Ironically, Palestinian leaders have come out far more strongly in favor of announcing statehood on May 4. All eight PLO factions, including Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, joined together yesterday in calling on him to resist international pressure to put off the declaration.

But political observers say that the apparently hard-line attitude ahead of the PLO leaders' meeting reflects tactical maneuvering by the players more than determination to declare statehood at any cost. Both the PLO leaders and the Palestinian population have reasons to feel Arafat has already made significant gains from threatening to declare statehood and that his strategy now must be to hold onto them by doing nothing that helps keep Netanyahu in power.

Those gains have come from a marathon international tour by Arafat over the last weeks to ask world leaders whether they would support the Palestinians in unilaterally declaring statehood. Most countries including the United States, Russia, and the European Union states -- have called on the Palestinians n-o-t to do so. In exchange, Arafat has gained endorsements that the peace process should not continue indefinitely.

The European Union, at its Berlin summit in March, said it reaffirmed the Palestinian right to self determination, including the option of a state and looked forward to the early fulfillment of that right. It also said Israel and the Palestinians should be able to conclude negotiations within a year.

Washington continues to insist that the question of Palestinian statehood can only be negotiated face-to-face by Israelis and Palestinians. It has said that negotiations should be accelerated and not open-ended, but refuses Palestinian demands to set a deadline for completing them.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told Palestinians in the West Bank last week that, in his words, they should have their independence and declare their state. But he also said that independence should not be announced May 4 and that Moscow wants to see Israel and the Palestinian Authority extending the date of the Oslo interim agreement.

The peace process partly goes into a vacuum after May 4 since the Oslo agreement signed by Israel and the PLO five years ago is expiring with no new timetable agreed upon by the two sides. The Oslo accord authorized Palestinian self-rule institutions and set a timeframe for Israeli withdrawals on the West Bank and for discussions on the future status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, and Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians say the accord's expiration date of May 4 was a deadline for completing the steps but the Israelis say it was only a target date.

David Bar-Illan, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told our correspondent last week in Jerusalem that the Oslo accord does not depend on dates and that any Palestinian declaration of statehood would be a unilateral termination of it. David Bar-Illan:

"Oslo was not really an agreement but just a blueprint for negotiations toward reaching an agreement, so Oslo does not depend on dates ... After [the Israeli elections], negotiations should restart. Any declaration of a state would be a scuttling [of the agreement], arbitrary and unilateral."

Netanyahu has threatened to unilaterally annex land in the Palestinian territories if Arafat declares statehood May 4.