News Analysis: Will Clinton Recognize ‘palestine’? Many Are Trying to Figure That out

It took President Truman only 11 minutes to recognize Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948.

How long will it take President Clinton to recognize “Palestine” if Yasser Arafat follows through with his promise to declare statehood next May?

The question is significant because the U.S. reaction to such a controversial declaration could affect the future of all Middle East peace negotiations as well as severely sour U.S.-Israel relations.

Israel, most American Jewish groups and many members of Congress want Clinton to wait for the Jewish state to agree — if it does — to Palestinian statehood at the negotiating table. But the Clinton administration has refused to make such an explicit statement.

Instead, the White House, State Department and the president himself have adopted a position opposing unilateral actions and stating that statehood is an issue for final-status talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The issue, for many, is not the merits of a Palestinian state.

Israel’s Labor Party has formally dropped its opposition to statehood, and even hawkish Cabinet minister Ariel Sharon has said a Palestinian state is inevitable. The important thing, says Sharon, is that Israel be involved in shaping it.

Instead, the debate focuses on how a state would emerge. Allowing Arafat to declare statehood without negotiations would take away a major Israeli bargaining chip in the final-status negotiations, which under the Oslo peace accords were intended to focus on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees — and borders.

Such a move, though likely to be supported by a host of nations, would be widely regarded as a gross violation of the Oslo process. The accords, which placed a deadline of May 4, 1999, on the interim period, prohibit both sides from taking steps to change the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip “pending the outcome of the permanent-status negotiations.”

Such a move could, in the view of many analysts, trigger widespread violence.

“We will face a potentially very explosive situation,” Martin Indyk, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said in a speech to American ORT here last week, referring to a unilateral Palestinian declaration.

Feeling the clock ticking down to next May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have asked the United States for a letter of assurance that Washington would not recognize a unilateral declaration Palestinian state. Such a guarantee would come as part of a presumed Israeli agreement to the U.S. peace plan that is the subject of negotiations this week between senior Palestinians and Israelis.

The plan calls for a further Israeli redeployment of 13 percent from the West Bank, coupled with concrete steps by the Palestinians on security matters.

The question of Palestinian statehood, long in the background, has percolated out in the open since May when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton voiced support for the Palestinian quest for statehood in a televised address to a group of Arab and Israeli teen-agers.

Her statement prompted 63 members of the House of Representatives to write to Clinton, urging the president to “publicly reaffirm” U.S. opposition to any unilateral declaration.

Foreshadowing probable world support for a declaration of statehood, the United Nations voted overwhelming this month to give the Palestinian observer mission many privileges afforded to states, minus a vote. Only the United States, Israel, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands opposed the resolution.

The first lady’s words, however, may not translate into U.S. recognition.

Many analysts doubt that Clinton would recognize a unilaterally declared Palestinian state.

For one thing, Clinton is a signatory to the Oslo accords and is unlikely to participate in a diplomatic move that would effectively lead to their demise.

Such a move would be “inconceivable” said Joel Singer, an Israeli architect of those accords.

“The only way to do it is to say that the entire Oslo process is terminated,” said Singer, who is now an attorney in Washington.

Many also believe that Clinton would not support Arafat for domestic political reasons.

By next May, Vice President Al Gore is expected to have begun his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. It is unlikely that Gore would want to seek Jewish votes and financial support on a platform endorsing Palestine without Israel’s support.

What many are trying to figure out is whether the U.S. view on a Palestinian state has changed.

Before Israel and the Palestinians launched the Oslo peace accords in 1993, the United States had a clear policy against the establishment of a Palestinian state — as did Israel.

But as the sides came closer together, U.S. policy shifted to declaring that statehood is an issue for negotiations.

Some Middle East analysts believe that the United States has again shifted policy and has not ruled out recognizing a unilaterally declared Palestinian state. U.S. officials have denied such a change.

After a detailed analysis of recent official U.S. statements on the issue, Rob Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concluded in a recent article in The New Republic: “The United States strongly prefers a negotiated outcome of final status issues between Israel and the Palestinians and will work to achieve that goal. However, if the two sides do not reach agreement by May 1999 and the Palestinians issue a unilateral declaration of statehood over Israeli objections, the U.S. may or may not recognize that state.”

“Opening the door to recognition only makes unilateralism more likely,” Satloff wrote.

In a June 23 letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Clinton wrote that the issue of a Palestinian state, like all other final-status issues, “can only be settled through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Clinton underlined “only” in his letter responding to correspondence from the umbrella group of 55 Jewish organizations.

At the State Department, spokesman James Rubin recently criticized those who have claimed that there has been a shift in policy.

When asked if there has been a change in U.S. policy, Rubin said, “No. I know there are some people who are using their microscopes to try to change a word here or change a word there. But certainly since I’ve taken my practice course in what to say on this question, it’s always been the same.”

Rubin added, “We do not believe it would be wise for us to state our view of this issue. This is something that is to be determined in the final status.”

Last week, Indyk echoed Rubin’s comments.

“Our position is clear: Neither party should take unilateral steps that would be perceived as preempting the outcome of the permanent-status negotiations,” he said.

But this has not satisfied many in the Conference of Presidents who originally wrote to Clinton asking him to “make clear to Chairman Arafat that any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state would be a gross violation of the Oslo accords, and would not be recognized by the U.S.”

“A clear declaration, `We would not recognize,’ has not been articulated,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

“It’s needed for the Palestinians to understand that there isn’t going to be a wink and a nod.”

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