The Palestine Liberation Organization is poised to take a potentially historic step toward statehood for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The PLO's governing body, the Palestine National Council, is expected to issue a declaration of independence for the Israeli-occupied territories on Monday. The credibility of the move will partly hinge on whether the PNC is also willing to accept Israel's right to exist.
Palestinian sources predict that at the least, the declaration's implicit recognition of Israel - combined with the intransigence of Israel's right-wing parties, which are expected to form the new government - will create international pressures on Israel to negotiate with the PLO.
``The declaration alone will not produce anything, but coupled with a moderate political program that can be seen by the West as a realistic acceptance of Israel, that's the gain,'' says one knowledgeable West Bank source.
The declaration comes in response to pressures from residents of the West Bank and Gaza. They are impatient to translate their 11-month uprising against Israeli rule into tangible political gains.
[Palestinians blocked roads with burning tires, unfurled outlawed national flags, and shut businesses yesterday in a general strike marking the start of the 12th month of their uprising against Israel, the Associated Press reports. At least 309 Palestinians and 11 Israelis have died since the uprising began Dec. 9.
[In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, activists sprayed walls with slogans praising the PLO's plans to declare Palestinian independence, the AP said.]
The declaration of independence will also be the latest expression of a developing consensus within the PLO for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on reciprocal recognition.
The PLO's more conciliatory tone was sounded most recently by Yasser Arafat in a widely noted speech before the European Parliament's socialist members in Strasbourg, France, on Sept. 12. Since then the peripatetic PLO chairman has visited 25 countries seeking diplomatic backing for the planned announcement.
A draft of the declaration was published last week in the East Jerusalem newspaper Al-Fajr. It proclaims the establishment of a Palestinian state ``on the soil of Palestine, with Jerusalem as its capital ... on the basis of United Nations Resolution 181.'' The 1947 resolution called for the division of mandatory Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.
The document also reaffirms the role of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and calls on European and Arab nations and the two superpowers to work toward an international Middle East peace conference with full PLO participation.
A separate statement is expected to specify that peace negotiations be based on relevant UN resolutions - including 242 and 338, which call for exchanging land for peace - so long as they recognize the right of Palestinians to self-determination. The statement will probably stop short of Western demands that the PLO accept 242 and 338 without precondition.
Sources close to the PLO say the PNC will merely ratify the declaration, the product of weeks of consultations and compromises among the PLO's factions.
PLO moderates had hoped to couple the declaration with the establishment of a provisional Palestinian government, but the plan was opposed by hard-liners, based in Damascus, who fear that a government would alter the PLO's mission.
``It would transform a revolutionary organization into a political organization, a group of fighters into a group of diplomats,'' predicts one Palestinian familiar with the negotiations leading to the PNC meeting, which begins here Saturday.
Instead, the PNC will empower the ruling Executive Committee to establish a government and to decide its composition and functions at its own discretion. It is a step to be taken ``right before liberation,'' another West Bank Palestinian explains.
The document's reference to Resolution 181 represents another compromise, between moderates who favor its implicit recognition of Israel and hard-liners who back its definition of boundaries, which include a portion of what is now Israel.
Even though the new state will exist only rhetorically, it is expected to win the diplomatic backing of a number of Arab and nonaligned nations. The United States and several European countries have refused to deal even with the PLO until it recognizes Israel and renounces terrorism, steps the divided organization appears unable to take at this time.
The plan to declare a state without borders or government has been derided by Israel. ``It's an escape, a declaration rather than a decision,'' Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, told reporters recently. Mr. Peres said that the PLO would ``either have to win a war or win a peace'' to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Since the PLO was founded in 1964, the PNC has been its highest policymaking body. Of 430 members, about one-fifth are representatives of the PLO's various guerrilla factions, led by Mr. Arafat's Al-Fatah. Other seats are held by ``diaspora'' Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. About 120 seats belong to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, though Israel does not allow them to attend PNC meetings, and they are not otherwise permitted to vote.
About 10 Americans are part of a group of ``independents'' that round out the roster of the PNC.
Because of the difficulty of gathering consensus among the PLO's factions, the PNC, which is supposed to meet annually, has convened only 18 other times in its 24-year history.
Anticipating violent demonstrations in support of the PNC, Israeli authorities have sealed off the territories for four days, starting tomorrow. West Bank sources say the independence declaration will be observed as one of the greatest achievements of the uprising.
``After 11 months of suffering, a day or two of simple celebrations,'' says one exuberant Palestinian.