Patience, Mr. Arafat

Yasser Arafat threatens to destabilize Israeli-Palestinian relations with his proposal to declare a Palestinian state May 4.

It's not that Mr. Arafat has no justification: The interim peace accord with Israel signed in Oslo in 1993 expires on that date. A final-status agreement was to have been negotiated by then.

But peace talks have made meager progress since the election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. That's partly because Mr. Netanyahu himself is predisposed against the accord and partly because hard-liners in his Cabinet have opposed even those compromises the prime minister was willing to make.

Nor has Arafat's Palestinian Authority done all it could to foster progress. While it has cracked down on terrorists more recently, it did not do enough earlier to head off attacks on innocent Israeli civilians.

Regarding statehood, Arafat's timing couldn't be worse. Israel is in the throes of parliamentary elections provoked largely by Netanyahu's signature on the Wye River accords last fall. The Israeli prime minister, whose hands have been tied since the dissolution of his government in December, threatens to annex those large areas of the West Bank still under Israeli control if Arafat acts.

Both developments would be a disastrous move away from the peace that everyone in the region needs and most want. What's required now is negotiation and an extension of the interim accord. Israel should be as ready to reward Arafat if he holds off as it is to punish him if he doesn't.

Last week Russia, a co-sponsor of the Middle East peace process, firmly counseled Arafat to wait. He should heed that advice.

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