For months, officials in Washington had feared a diplomatic earthquake on May 4, when Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, terming it a “sacred date,” threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.
Instead, next week’s long-feared deadline may pass with barely a rumble, thanks to intensive U.S.-Palestinian diplomacy and a new initiative from Washington that promises to revive U.S. mediation efforts after the upcoming Israeli elections.
But a major eruption could still take place after that if the election results in another hard-line government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — and if Arafat, capitalizing on his recent tour of world capitals promoting statehood, decides to opt out of a stalled Oslo process.
Although Arafat described this week’s U.S. initiative as “more than positive,” the Palestinians got only some of what they pressed for during months of quiet negotiations and public diplomacy — including a private presidential statement expressing support for Palestinian aspirations for self-determination.
Palestinian officials portrayed that as an incremental move toward official U.S. acceptance of an eventual Palestinian state. Officials here said it was simply restating longstanding U.S. policy. In either case, it was far from the strong endorsement the Palestinians had sought.
President Bill Clinton also proposed accelerated final-status talks that he hopes will be concluded in a year, but he avoided the explicit target date the Palestinians had sought.
State Department spokesman James Rubin said that, “I wouldn’t call it a deadline. I would call it an objective, and a sense of what is possible if there is a good faith effort on both sides.”
That was a clear defeat for the Palestinians, according to some.
“[The Palestinians] wanted a hard date for completion of permanent-status talks,” said Dore Gold, Israelis ambassador to the United Nations. “It is my understanding they got another target date. That’s important. If there was a hard deadline, there would have been no incentive for the Palestinians to negotiate. A target date is consistent with the Oslo process.”
The administration also called on both sides to continue the effort to fully implement the Oslo and Wye River agreements after the May 4 deadline passes.
The Palestinian leadership appeared ready to accept the American outline, although they were not expected to reveal their plans for May 4, when the Oslo interim period expires.
On Monday, the Palestinian parliament approved a non-binding resolution calling for the Palestinian Authority to begin building the core institutions of a state, but not mentioning the May 4 deadline. On Tuesday the 124-member Palestinian Central Council began debating statehood. But most observers said an unequivocal statehood decision by the body is unlikely, at least before the second round of elections in Israel and the formation of a new government.
“Arafat will not make a declaration on May 4. That would be stupid, and he’s not a stupid person,” said Joel Singer, a former legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and one of the key architects of the first Oslo accord.
Instead, he predicted that “Arafat will do all kinds of symbolic things on May 4, but they will be carefully controlled and reviewed in order not to give Netanyahu even the slightest pretext to take retaliatory steps.”
The low-key Palestinian response, he said, is aimed at preventing a backlash in the Israeli elections that will help Netanyahu, who is locked in a bitter battle with Labor leader Ehud Barak, with Center Party candidate Yitzchak Mordechai lurking in the background.
“Arafat will want to leave all options open until after the second round of the Israeli elections,” Singer said. “People are focusing on May 4, but the critical date is June 1.”
After the new government is formed, Singer said, Arafat will reassess his prospects. He could decide to continue working with Washington to press forward with the talks — “or he could be so despairing he may decide he can’t wait another four years. Then he may conclude his only option is to get out of the earlier agreements. The jury is out. Each of these options would be carefully considered. Nobody can anticipate the Palestinian decision in June, because nobody can anticipate the makeup of the next coalition.”
Other Jewish activists say a declaration — or a promise to declare a state by the end of the year — is the likeliest option for the Palestinians if Netanyahu is returned to power and assembles a hard-line government.
Arafat’s recent world tour, in which he sought support for the concept of statehood even as he hinted he would comply with U.S. wishes and not issue a proclamation on May 4, boosted his standing and earned him chits with foreign leaders.
Singer believes Arafat will cash in those chits for economic support for the faltering Palestinian economy. Others say he will use them primarily to blunt U.S. criticism if he does make a statehood declaration after the election.
“Arafat has positioned himself very shrewdly,” said an official with a pro-peace process group. “In the past two months he’s substantially improved his position so that a unilateral action after June would win considerable support abroad — which would dampen the impact of U.S. opposition. Arafat has approached this in a very sophisticated way.”
The administration disseminated its Mideast proposals on two levels this week.
Publicly, the White House issued a cautiously worded statement calling for a new Israeli-Palestinian summit within six months, accelerated final status talks and urging both sides to “avoid unilateral acts and declarations that prejudge or predetermine issues reserved for permanent-status negotiations.”
In a letter to Arafat, Clinton reportedly went a few small steps further, calling Israel’s expansion of settlements and new creation of new settlements “destructive” to the peace process.
But that did not represent a new turn in U.S. diplomacy, just a refinement of what administration officials have said in the past.
“The administration initiative helps prevent the Palestinians from declaring a state unilaterally, and it establishes at least the outlines of a framework for the next step after the elections,” said Jonathan Jacoby, director of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that supports the Oslo process. “It avoids the entire issue of Israeli electoral politics. So on balance I think it was an extraordinary move.”
But Israeli officials warn that the Palestinians, having failed to win explicit U.S. support for statehood, may be preparing to drag the peace process into a new arena.
Specifically, they worry about recent statements suggesting the Palestinians may try to stake out a statehood claim based on United Nations Resolution 181 — the UN partition plan of 1947.
Under the Oslo agreement, statehood and issues such as sharing Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian entity must be decided through bilateral negotiations. Under resolution 181, they are taken as givens, Israeli officials say.
“We are seeing an exponential rise in Palestinian references to 181,” said Gold, Israel’s UN ambassador. “That’s coming not just from the extreme wings, but from central figures in the PLO and PA.”
Gold said it is not clear if the new focus on the UN partition plan is another maneuver by Arafat intended to put pressure on the government in Jerusalem — or a genuine shift in strategy that could up the ante in Palestinian demands for territory.
“Either way it is a violation of the basic process of Madrid,” Gold said. “We see this as a very bad development.”
But pro-peace process forces say Arafat is simply jockeying for position — and that the Israeli government is trying to turn the 181 controversy into another proof of bad faith by the Palestinians.