Arafat sets ticking time bomb under peace talks His pledge to declare Palestine state in May puts a clock on peace

September 17, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross concludes another apparently fruitless attempt to break the deadlock in the Middle East peace process today and the clock keeps ticking on an historic experiment that's set to end in another eight months.

When that moment arrives in May, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has said he will declare an independent Palestinian state, a threat that has spawned a number of possible scenarios, ranging from the bizarre to the plausible:

Israeli soldiers reoccupy Palestinian cities. Palestinian police attack Jewish settlements. Palestinians engage in civil protests. Israel annexes Jewish settlements in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees march on Israel. Fifty-thousand Iraqi forces storm Israel's borders.

A few of the scenarios spring from an apocalyptic imagination. Others are based on intelligence and security sources. Some originate with commentators and politicians, both Israeli and Palestinian.

Arafat reiterated yesterday his intention to declare independence in May and warned a gathering of Palestinian leaders in Cairo, Egypt, that Israel has "already begun training to storm the Palestinian territories," once a state is declared.

With the peace process at a stalemate and in considerable turmoil, Arafat's pronouncement is viewed by some as a way to prod the Israelis into action and fortify his base of support among an increasingly frustrated Palestinian populace.

His Cabinet recently decided to begin planning for the May 4 announcement. Others, including many Palestinians, see it as an empty threat. They note that Arafat made a similar declaration in November 1988.

Samir Abdullah, an economist who once worked for the ruling Palestinian authority, said Palestinians are ready for their own state.

"We want to declare a state," said Abdullah, now a bank president in Ramallah, a West Bank city now under Palestinian control. But the economist asks: "How feasible is it in a situation where you have Israel controlling 95 percent of the electricity, 85 percent of water 65 percent of Palestinian revenues? What kind of state are we going to declare?"

The peace treaty Israelis and Palestinians signed on the White House lawn in September 1993 set a May 4, 1999, deadline for resolving the most sensitive issues -- the status of Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The hope was Israel would achieve peace with its Arab neighbors and Palestinians would gain a homeland of their own.

But terrorist attacks against Israelis and the election of a hard-line prime minister in Israel disrupted the timetable of the land-for-peace plan that was scripted in Oslo, Norway.

The May deadline has taken on new importance as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators struggle to break a 16-month stalemate in the peace process.

Yossi Beilin, a member of the opposition Labor Party who drafted the Oslo accords, has called for the two sides to delay until 2001 the deadline for a final settlement. Otherwise, under the present government, "The collision track is inevitable."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, often blamed for the impasse, has said a unilateral declaration by Arafat would prompt a reaction from Israel.

While he reluctantly agreed to uphold Israel's part of the peace plan, he says Israel's moves must be reciprocated by Palestinians.

And he recently noted that the late Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who signed the peace accords, "used to say over and over again no deadline under Oslo is sacred. And in fact no deadline under the Labor government was kept either by the Israeli government or the Palestinian side."

The architects of the Oslo accords sought to design, in the words of Rabin, "a permanent solution to the unending bloody conflict" between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab states. The agreement left the most divisive issues to the end, but it did envision a conclusion to the five-year experiment in peace-making.

The Oslo accords don't call for an independent Palestinian state. Rabin, in a 1995 speech to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, plainly set out Israel's position on a "Palestinian entity," a home to most of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

"We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority," Rabin said.

Israel's borders, he said, would extend beyond the boundaries that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

With the implementation of the Oslo accords and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from one Palestinian city after another, the prospect of an independent Palestine grew. Palestinians always have envisioned their own state, but they have disagreed over what it should look like and how to achieve it.

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