Jerusalem, 30 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first issue facing the Israelis and Palestinians as the Oslo interim accords expire Tuesday (May 4) is whether to extend them -- formally or informally -- and for how long.
Analysts say some of the key agreements that preceded and underpinned the Oslo process have no time limit and will carry on with their own legal weight. Most important of these are Israel's recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as the PLO's acceptance of the Jewish state, most recently reaffirmed as part of the Wye accord last year.
But other practices and institutions established by the Oslo accords on Palestinian autonomy fall into legal uncertainty after May 4. They include agreements to cooperate on security. They also include the status of the Palestinian Legislative Council -- the Palestinian parliament whose deputies were elected in 1996 and whose four-year terms extend beyond the accord's end. The same uncertainty surrounds the office of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, also elected for a four-year term.
Such questions could make a nightmare of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if the two sides choose not to extend the Oslo accords. But all indications are that neither side will risk doing so, at least for now.
Originally, Arafat had threatened to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood if the Oslo period expired in a deadlock. But in a meeting this week, the Palestinian leadership decided to postpone any decision on declaring statehood until after the Israeli elections May 17, effectively prolonging the Oslo period.
The Israeli government, distracted by the upcoming elections, has yet to formally say if it will extend the Oslo accords. But analysts predict that no matter who wins the elections, Israel will continue to recognize the Palestinian Authority's institutions and negotiate with it within the Oslo framework.
Uzi Benziman, a correspondent for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, told RFE/RL in Jerusalem last week that this outcome is independent of whether the hard-line Likud party or its leading challenger, the Labor-led One Israel coalition, wins:
"The Likud may continue the process because it won't have any choice, because the process probably is strong enough to overcome any government here. With regard to the Labor Party, initially they are for the process; they really want to make peace with the Palestinians and are ready to pay the price."
But Benziman says that if Likud, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wins the election, it will continue to negotiate with the Palestinians, as he put it, at their own speed and under international pressure.
Major world powers -- including the United States, the European Union states and Russia -- have urged both the Israelis and the Palestinians to extend the Oslo period. The European Union, at its Berlin summit in March, reaffirmed the Palestinian right to self-determination, including the option of a state and said that Israel and the Palestinians should be able to conclude negotiations within a year.
Washington this week called on both parties to engage in accelerated permanent status talks and to rededicate themselves to the goal of reaching an agreement within a year.
The next and toughest round of choices facing the two sides -- how to use an extension of the Oslo period -- will come after the results of the Israeli elections are clear.
The Palestinians have made no secret that they hope Netanyahu will be replaced. They favor One Israel's leader Ehud Barak or the other leading challenger, the Centrist Party's Yitzhak Mordechai, who is also seen as more moderate than Netanyahu.
Khalil Shikaki of the independent Center for Palestinian Research and Studies in the West Bank city of Nablus told our correspondent that if a moderate comes to power in Israel, Arafat would seek to win assurances that the Palestinians are on the way to statehood and to pick up the pace of negotiations:
"He will ask Mr. Barak to meet four terms of the Palestinians, that any meaningful extension of the interim period must be based on an understanding with the Israeli government that the purpose of the peace process is to deliver, achieve, peace within a context of a two-state solution. The second is that during this period, Israel will not engage in settlement activities."
Shikaki says Arafat would also seek assurances that the Israeli government would allow the Palestinians to develop a contiguous territorial base and give the Palestinian Authority more state-like responsibilities during the extended period. These might include allowing official Palestinian representations to foreign countries and a separate mail system.
But the analyst says that if Netanyahu is re-elected, Arafat will find it very hard to continue the peace process without risking lost support among the Palestinian population. Shikaki predicts Arafat will unilaterally declare an independent state in the event of a Netanyahu victory:
"It is extremely important for Mr. Arafat to maintain credibility at home. Palestinians are willing to give Mr. Arafat a great deal of room for maneuver if there is a Labor government. However, if it is a Likud government, then he cannot justify sitting down and just taking another beating."
But unilaterally declaring Palestinian statehood would also put Arafat on a collision course with many foreign countries, which only recently told him not to carry out an earlier threat to do so when the Oslo period expires next week.
That means Arafat would have to weigh any gain in Palestinian support against angering the international community and the risk of unilateral reprisals by the Israeli government. Netanyahu has said he will annex unspecified amounts of the Palestinian territories if Arafat declares statehood.
(This is the second feature in a five-part series evaluating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the conclusion of the Oslo interim period on May 4.)