News Analysis: Arafat Gambit Nets Big Payoff with E.u. ‘balfour Declaration’
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News Analysis: Arafat Gambit Nets Big Payoff with E.u. ‘balfour Declaration’

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The Palestinian people have gotten a Balfour Declaration of their own.

But while the original declaration, which recognized the right of the Jewish people for a national homeland, was the work of Great Britain alone, the statement backing Palestinian statehood emerged last Friday from the 15 members of the European Union.

Predictably, this broad show of support for Palestinian national aspirations was hailed by Palestinian officials, but denounced in Israel.

Capping a three-day summit of European leaders meeting in Berlin, the declaration reaffirmed the Palestinians’ “continuing and unqualified right to self-determination, including the option of a state.”

The declaration, in which the European leaders stated their “readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian state in due course,” called on Israel to conclude final-status negotiations — which touch on issues including statehood — with the Palestinian Authority within a year.

Pressuring Israel even further, the E.U. leaders said Palestinian self- determination is “not subject to any veto.”

With their unequivocal backing, the E.U. leaders are giving Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat a reward — international recognition for a Palestinian state — in exchange for his willingness to postpone a unilateral declaration of statehood.

In this respect, observers noted, a strategy crafted by Arafat appears to have reaped a major payoff.

For months, Arafat has been threatening to unilaterally declare statehood on May 4, the end of the interim period in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking under the terms of the Oslo accords. The final-status talks, which have barely gotten off the ground, were supposed to have been completed by that date.

In recent weeks, Arafat has met with European and American officials to win their assurances of support for statehood if he postpones the declaration.

During a meeting with Arafat last week in Washington, President Clinton fell short of giving such an assurance, reiterating U.S. policy that a state can only emerge through negotiations with Israel. But at the same time, Clinton said he would press Israel to engage in “intensive, serious and credible” peace talks that would have a deadline for completion.

Also last week, Arafat met in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who gave his support for Palestinian statehood. But, like Clinton, Chretien said it should be reached after negotiations with Israel, not as a result of a unilateral declaration.

Echoing the U.S. desire that those negotiations not be open-ended, Chretien said the talks cannot go on “forever.”

The various statements, capped by the E.U. declaration, all came as a result of Arafat’s threat to make a unilateral pronouncement.

Never mind that Arafat might never have followed through on the threat. A unilateral declaration in early May, coming weeks before the Israeli elections, could have played directly into the hands of the one politician Arafat does not want to see re-elected — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Just the same, Palestinian analysts were almost unanimous in saying that whatever Arafat does, Netanyahu will use it for his own benefit. If Arafat unilaterally declares statehood, they said, Netanyahu would use it to prove that Arafat is an extremist. If Arafat does not issue the declaration, the premier would announce that he, Netanyahu, had prevented the move.

Whether or not he ever intended to follow through, the threat of a unilateral declaration allowed Arafat to play a leading role on the international diplomatic chessboard.

Palestinian officials believe that in the wake of the E.U.’s statement of support, and the meeting with Clinton, it is now highly unlikely that Arafat will make the unilateral declaration.

“Theoretically, there is still the option of proclaiming a state on May 4,” Ziad Abu Ziad, a member of the Palestinian Cabinet, told JTA. “But one can assume that we will opt for a postponement.”

The postponement, even for a year, involves a simple calculation on Arafat’s part: Better to wait and have international support for Palestinian statehood, which will prove a valuable card indeed in the final-status talks with Israel.

In addition, perhaps there will be a new Israeli leader to negotiate with after the May elections.

Just the same, a postponement of Palestinian aspirations will undoubtedly test Arafat’s standing among his people at a time when his political stock has been falling.

The man whose regime has been strongly criticized for corruption and abuse of power will now be telling Palestinians to bear with him because statehood will soon be theirs.

The response he gets from his people will likely mirror their reaction to the E.U. declaration. The rejectionists, including leftists and Islamic fundamentalists, saw nothing special in it. Arafat supporters rejoiced.

In Israel, meanwhile, the reaction to the declaration was harsh indeed.

The Israeli leadership — preoccupied with the coming elections — was caught off guard by the declaration, which came just weeks after E.U. officials reiterated their stance that they view Jerusalem as a separate entity from Israel under the terms of the 1947 partition plan that called for the internationalization of the city.

Although there were clear indications that the Europeans were about to give their equivocal support for a Palestinian state, no efforts were made by Israeli officials on the diplomatic front to prevent the move.

But once the declaration emerged from the Berlin summit, Israeli leaders from all sides of the political spectrum came out against it.

Invoking the memory of the Holocaust, Netanyahu said last Friday, “It is a shame that Europe, where a third of the Jewish people was killed, should take a stand which puts Israel at risk and goes against our interests.”

He also said that E.U. officials had “reduced their possibility” of being an honest broker in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The European Union “has already taken sides. Not only has it taken sides, it has even given a date,” the premier said.

“We cannot accept this attempt at an external dictate, a Palestinian state with a deadline by the year 2000.”

His stance was echoed by members of the opposition Labor Party.

Even Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, a key architect of the Oslo accords, said he regretted the E.U. declaration.

“I don’t have a problem with the substance,” Beilin said. “I am also in favor of Palestinian self-determination.”

But just the same, he added, “The question is whether I come to that point by way of an agreement with the Palestinians on a demilitarized state, on red lines, on limitations, or whether someone from outside dictates the rules.”

Meanwhile, within the Palestinian self-rule areas, the coming weeks will witness a shift in political power from the institutions of the Palestinian Authority — a product of the Oslo accords — to the organs of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

With the powers of the Palestinian legislative council set to expire on May 4, Arafat will soon be calling a meeting of the PLO’s Central Committee to announce what happens next.

The anticipated scenario: Arafat will use his authority to extend the powers of the existing institutions and call for new elections for a Palestinian legislature.

He will also start setting the scene for a declaration of independence, but that move is now not expected until May — of next year.

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