Is Palestine ready to declare itself into being?

December 05, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The political struggle between Palestinians and Israelis may soon explosively escalate. The Palestinian authority may shortly assert that an independent and sovereign Palestinian state exists, and claim U.N. admittance and full international recognition.

The most important Palestinian newspaper in Jerusalem, Al-Quds, and the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat (which has a quarter-million circulation in the Arab world), both have in the past few days published articles arguing that a Palestinian state already exists, so far as the law of nations is concerned, and recommending that the Palestinian authorities assert that state's sovereignty over Palestine.

The importance of these articles lies in the fact that they have been published in these newspapers, evidence that the proposal they make is under serious consideration by the Palestinian authorities.

The author is a European-based American international lawyer, John Whitbeck, who sympathizes with the Palestinian cause but has also been an inventive influence on the search for a settlement that Israelis as well as Palestinians might both find equitable.

He says that Israel's agreement to conduct permanent status negotiations with the Palestinian authorities (the Declaration of

Principles signed in September 1993) itself implied eventual acceptance by Israel of Palestinian statehood. Negotiations otherwise made no sense.

Four customary criteria for statehood exist in international law. These are a defined territory over which sovereignty is not seriously contested by another state, a permanent population, an ability by the political authority to discharge international and conventional obligations, and effective control over territory and population.

Mr. Whitbeck says that, judged by these criteria, ''the state of Palestine is on at least as firm a legal footing as the state of Israel.''

The Palestinian authority makes formal claim to the portion of historical Palestine occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Its claim is uncontested. It also makes a contested claim to expanded East Jerusalem, where Israel makes a rival claim, yet to be accepted by any other nation.

Israel has never annexed or asserted sovereignty over the territory the Palestinians claim other than Jerusalem. Its legal position is as occupying power, which is by definition a temporary status. As the basis for a future permanent-status settlement Israel has acknowledged U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, explicitly premised on the ''inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.''

The Palestinian executive, elected legislature and security forces now exercise uncontested authority over the areas from which Israel has withdrawn: the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. The permanence of the Palestinian population there is unquestioned, and the Palestinian authority has demonstrated its willingness and ability to discharge international obligations.

French, British support

Mr. Whitbeck proposes that the Palestinians should now assert sovereign statehood in Palestine and apply for U.N. membership. French President Jacques Chirac and British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, during recent visits to Palestine, expressed strong support for Palestinian statehood, and this is echoed elsewhere in Europe as well as in much of the rest of the world.

Mr. Whitbeck concedes that the United States could veto Palestinian membership in the United Nations, but suggests that, having won his second term, Mr. Clinton might not ''defy what undoubtedly would be the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the international community.'' I believe Mr. Whitbeck is mistaken. However, a veto is irrelevant to formal recognition by individual U.N. members of a sovereign Palestinian state in Palestine.

The important question is whether following Mr. Whitbeck's advice would be good or bad for the peace process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Likud Party congress in September that ''there is no Palestinian state . . . and there will not be a Palestinian state.'' There is no reason to doubt his determination. According to the Arab press, he has already warned Yasser Arafat that declaration of a Palestinian state would end the peace process.

The Palestinians could answer that the peace process seems already ended by unilateral Israeli decision. Would this be a wise answer or a foolhardy one? Would it inspire new violence and foreclose any future dealings with an Israel vastly more powerful

than the Palestinians?

It would amount to an effort to transform the present negotiations from those of an occupied people with their occupiers into a negotiation between sovereign states to define a common border and the status of forces and citizens of the one state presently within the claimed frontiers of the other.

It would also imply that any Israel military intrusion into areas already conceded to Palestinian authority would be invasion of a sovereign nation.

To the extent that this claim was recognized by the international community, it would deal a serious blow to the Netanyahu government. However, it would not foreclose Palestinian negotiations with some future Israeli government, and the Palestinians might then be in a more advantageous political position.

The crucial factor is that the visible alternative is new violence -- unarmed or armed resistance by the Palestinians to the Netanyahu government's policy of expanding settlements. In such violence the Palestinians would be the losers, but so would be all those Israelis who voted against Mr. Netanyahu, or would vote against him today, and who want a settlement with the Palestinians to get this terrible struggle over with.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/05/96

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