"Arafat gave in to our pressure," was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's typically self-promoting response to the PLO's recent decision not to declare a Palestinian state on May 4, the deadline of the Oslo agreement's five-year "interim period" and the date on which--as PLO chairman Yasir Arafat has repeatedly vowed--it is the Palestinians' right to declare a state in Gaza and the West Bank "with [East] Jerusalem as its capital."
While Netanyahu preened, the European Union and the Arab League applauded Arafat's desire to "give the peace process another chance," as did the US State Department, which "warmly welcomed" the PLO's decision. Washington has reason to be pleased. For in postponing a decision on Palestinian statehood until some unspecified date, Arafat has once again chosen to trust the good faith of Washington (and, even more, the Israeli electorate) over the deep skepticism within his own movement. At the PLO's central council (PCC) session in Gaza, the general view of the 100 or so delegates was to postpone a declaration of statehood in deference to world opinion. But a number of delegates (including four from the Islamist Hamas movement who, for the first time, attended the PCC as "observers") argued forcefully that May 4 should mark an exit from the political, security and territorial constraints imposed on the Palestinians by Oslo's various interim agreements. Demands were made instead for a campaign of national resistance against Israel's settlement policies in the occupied territories and for democratic reform of institutions within the Palestinian self-rule areas in order to "ready the people" for statehood.
Arafat gave little quarter to either demand. While the PCC agreed to set up several committees to put in place "the elements for statehood" (such as drafting a Palestinian Constitution), its main decision was to hold another meeting sometime in June, after the second round of the Israeli elections. As for the end of the interim agreement on May 4, this is not mentioned in the PCC's "concluding statement" of April 29, an omission most Palestinian commentators see as signaling Arafat's quiet acquiescence in its extension.
If so, he is following the advice conveyed to him in a letter from President Clinton on the eve of the PCC meeting. While acknowledging that the Palestinians will "determine their future as a free people on their land" and denouncing "the destructive influence of Israeli settlement policy on the peace process," the main thrust of Clinton's missive was for Arafat to resume "accelerated" negotiations with Israel on a final settlement "with the intention of completing it within a year." Once Arafat described the letter as "more than positive," most Palestinians knew that a postponement of statehood was a done deal.
But for how long? Should One Israel's Ehud Barak or the Center Party's Yitzhak Mordechai be elected Israel's next prime minister, the assumption is that the Oslo process will be revived, together with a new target date for its conclusion. But should Netanyahu be re-elected, any new timetable for negotiations is likely to be no more binding than in the past. At that point--and under pressure from his own people--Arafat may be forced to opt for the "calculated crisis" of a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence rather than again heed the cautious counsels of the White House.
But that, says Palestinian political analyst Khalil Shikaki, is no longer "a Palestinian or international decision; it is an Israeli decision," to be delivered by the Israeli electorate on May 17 or, should there be a run-off for prime minister, on June 1.