How far should Arafat threaten statehood?
He may back off earlier ultimatum, but options for Palestiniansremain complex.
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — Palestinian officials are growing increasingly flexible about Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's earlier ultimatum to unilaterally declare an independent state this May if negotiations with Israel don't bring him there first. Mr. Arafat has been coming under mounting international pressure to back down from his intentions to make a declaration of statehood on May 4, the date marking the end of the five-year interim period of the Oslo Accords. Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are currently frozen. Calls for restraint from American, Egyptian, and Jordanian leaders are being compounded by concerns among many Palestinians that such a provocative move - without the consent of the Israeli government - would help right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chances of being reelected on May 17. The precarious May 4 deadline, Palestinians now say, is one that will probably be broken. "I don't think the issue of statehood is debatable, but the timing is debatable," says Marwan Kanafani, a leading adviser to Arafat and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, interviewed yesterday at a meeting of preeminent peacemakers from around the world. "President Arafat spoke about a state on May 4 because that's when we face a situation when we have no binding agreement with Israel. Mr. Netanyahu thinks he can use this as a weapon for his elections, to frighten the Israeli people and win votes. We shouldn't let this issue be used by Netanyahu." Maneuverings on both sides Only a day earlier, Netanyahu threatened to annex the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza - part of which is now under Palestinian control - if the Palestinian Authority declares a state next May. His statement came on the heels of much more conciliatory remarks by Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who said that no unilateral declaration would be made if negotiations with Israel were ongoing. Arafat himself said yesterday that Palestinians are carefully considering whether they should declare a state. The attention to whether Arafat can be persuaded not to declare a state this spring comes as the Clinton administration's Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, returned to the region. At the same time, global giants of reconciliation - including South Africa's Bishop Desmond Tutu and F.W. de Klerk, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and US statesman Henry Kissinger - convened in Israel and the Palestinian self-rule areas to promote peace. The three-day meeting of governors of the Peres Center for Peace, named for Israeli former prime minister Shimon Peres, occurred without the participation or approval of Netanyahu's government. Speaking at the Palestinian legislature in Ramallah - in a first for any Israeli official - Mr. Peres declared outright support for a Palestinian state - something he never did when he led the country until he was ousted by Netanyahu in May 1996. "It is our deep hope not only that the Palestinian people will gain independence - it is our common interest that we will see a Palestinian state taking place," Peres told the audience. Now, however, may not be the time for Arafat to adhere to his May 4 deadline, as Israel is preparing for elections that could fundamentally change the actors driving the peace process. There are fears that such a declaration could lead to war if Israel tries to annex disputed territory. Two of the leading candidates for Israeli prime minister - the Labor Party's Ehud Barak and centrist candidate Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - say they are not opposed to a Palestinian state. But the Palestinian dilemma over whether or not to declare a state now is more complex than it seems. Powerful leverage In a process where Israel decides if and when to transfer land or powers and has stronger ties with Oslo's mediator, the United States, Arafat sees threats of statehood as one of the only ways he can prod Israel in taking Palestinian demands seriously. At the same time, Palestinians say they don't want to feed the Israeli right wing's campaign chest by allowing Netanyahu to spark Israeli fears about Palestinian aspirations and thus glean votes. By the same token, Palestinians also don't want to be quoted saying that they will put off their deadline for declaring a state. For one, that will anger hard-line Palestinians. And, the image that Palestinians are trying to smooth the way for the election of a pro-peace government might actually hurt the those chances, because the Israeli right wing will use that against the left in the campaign. "The declaration of statehood is a problem that is very tricky, and the trickiness is in the fact that the Palestinians clearly want to help one side in the elections," says Daoud Kuttab, the director of Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. "At same time, they don't want to appear to be helping one side, because that could backfire and make things worse." But Arafat's statehood option, he adds, "is certainly a strong card, and I think he will try to hold onto it until the last minute." "I don't know what the alternative is," Mr. Kuttab says. "If he doesn't declare, what will be the rewards? They have to sweeten the pot. If he can get something [in return] for it, fine." What Arafat could get in return is rather welcoming treatment from Washington, as well as from other international donors to the Palestinian Authority. Arafat, in fact, has been invited to come for a meeting with Clinton sometime this spring, his advisers say. But the Clinton Administration appears to be significantly cooling its relationship with the Netanyahu government. The State Department chided Israel's ambassador to Washington last week for blaming the new stalemate in the peace process on the Palestinians, saying that the Palestinians had indeed made significant efforts to carry out their part of the Wye accords signed last October. Furthermore, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright refused to meet with Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon when he was in the US last week, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Instead, Mr. Ross was sent here on a mission aimed at convincing both sides to uphold their commitments in the Wye accords. American officials, however, say that expectations of moving the process forward before the Israeli elections are low.