The possibility that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would follow through on his warnings to unilaterally declare a state on May 4 has been the time bomb ticking beneath the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It now seems clear that Mr. Arafat will defuse that danger, moving closer to postponing the declaration in recent days. And as a result of what at times appeared to be a race to see who could get more mileage out of the standoff - Arafat or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - the Palestinian leader seems to be leaping ahead by winning new words of support from the United States and enthusiastic backing at home.
More than 100 members of the Palestine Central Council (PCC), a governing body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), began convening at Arafat's office here on Tuesday in order to determine whether next week is the appropriate time for the Palestinians to declare statehood. May 4 marks the end of the five-year period of Palestinian autonomy outlined in the Oslo accords.
Palestinians believe that the natural product of that process is a state of their own. The Israeli government says that a variety of options exist, and that such matters must be worked out around the negotiating table.
But Mr. Netanyahu pulled away from those talks, halting further peace moves soon after signing the Wye accords last October, when he came under intense pressure from his right-wing constituency. Israeli lawmakers called new elections last December, signaling that Israel would not implement any steps in the accords for at least another six months.
The prospect of the declaration of a Palestinian state, with or without Israel's say-so, is a worrisome prospect for Israelis. They fear that many nations of the world would offer recognition to the newborn state, diminishing Israel's power to influence what it would look like. Netanyahu says that if Arafat tries such a contentious maneuver, Israel will annex all parts of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip still under its control. According to many scenarios, a military confrontation might ensue.
Such saber-rattling over the issue seemed about to scale down as senior Palestinian officials suggested they would opt for postponement, or at least continue deliberations until after Israeli elections. "I don't think we need to be in a hurry to decide whether to declare or postpone," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Information Minister, after the meeting got under way.
Arafat told PLO members that the most important thing is that a de facto Palestinian state is already functioning on the ground. "We don't need to affirm our state, because we are actually exercising statehood," the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, quoted Arafat as telling the assembly, which was closed to the press. "We are going through a very delicate period in the history of our people, a period during which we cannot afford to make any mistakes."
As Arafat toured the globe in recent months, seeking international support for a Palestinian state, he was warned that making a move just before the Israeli elections could only work to Netanyahu's advantage. Such a bold tactic outside the parameters of peace negotiations would allow Netanyahu to argue that the Palestinians had committed the ultimate violation of the accords, and might encourage wavering swing voters to lurch to his side.
Now, however, Arafat looks to have gained more from his gambit, while Netanyahu has come under a barrage of criticism from his left-wing opponent for having caused a situation in which the Palestinians appear to have better ties with the Clinton administration than Israel. Arafat's top two negotiators were in Washington last week to discuss what the US could offer the Palestinians in return for a promise to delay the declaration, but no equivalent welcome mats have been offered to Netanyahu in months.
"Netanyahu did not stop anything," Labor Party leader Ehud Barak said on Israel's Channel 2. "All he has done is alienated Israel internationally. With the US behind the Palestinians, we have lost all our leverage."
As part of American efforts to persuade Arafat not to declare a state, the Clinton administration told Arafat it would host a three-way summit after the Israeli elections, with an eye toward reaching a final settlement by next spring. President Clinton also sent a letter to Arafat, which the Palestinian leader read to the PLO assembly, saying that the US supports the right of Palestinians to "determine their future as free people on their own land."
Arafat's handling of the statehood question has also boosted his fortunes among Palestinians. His decision to turn the problem over to the PCC promoted an image of encouraging democracy, though the 124-seat council is stacked with Arafat loyalists. The council head, Salim Zanoun, said that the May 4 date might instead be used to begin drafting a Palestinian constitution.
Arafat also won favor with Palestinians by inviting Hamas, the Islamic militant group, to attend the PCC assembly as an observer. This marked the first time Hamas, which rejects the peace accords with Israel, has participated in a major PLO event. Hamas officials said yesterday they would participate in elections and join a Palestinian government once a state is established.
"All that matters is that I'll have the state my father didn't have," says Tariq Abu Daya, who works in a Gaza City souvenir store, where the most popular product is Palestinian flags. "All the countries of the world advised the president to wait, so we can wait a little longer."