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News Analysis: Arafat Enjoys Renewed Standing in West and Among His Own People

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This was the week that had been prophesied as doomsday for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

For months, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had been threatening to unilaterally declare statehood on May 4. During that same period, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just as persistently stated that Israel would respond to such a declaration by annexing chunks of the West Bank.

Tuesday marked the end of the interim period envisioned under the Oslo accords, by which time Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to have completed their final-status negotiations.

But with the Oslo process frozen and the final-status talks only having gotten off to a largely ceremonial start, Arafat repeatedly threatened that the Palestinian Authority was entitled to declare statehood without consulting the Israelis.

He took that message to more than 20 countries in recent months, during which time he convinced world leaders to back Palestinian statehood if he postponed the unilateral declaration.

As Tuesday approached, Arafat parlayed that international support into a decision that brought Israel and the Palestinians back from the brink.

Last week, during a meeting in Gaza of the Palestinian Central Council, the mini-parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization overwhelmingly voted to put off the declaration until after Israel’s May elections.

In its April 29 decision, the council declared its session “open-ended” – – meaning they would take a wait-and-see attitude toward the Israeli elections before convening its next session in June.

“If the new Israeli government is a government of peace,” said Faisal Husseini, the Palestinians’ top official in Jerusalem, “then we will renew negotiations.”

“If not,” he added, “then we will feel free to declare independence.”

Husseini did not say which government he would consider a government of peace. After all, he said, the Palestinian Authority has no desire to interfere in the Israeli elections.

It is no secret that the Palestinians oppose the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claimed last week that his threat to annex portions of the West Bank had been responsible for Arafat’s decision to defer the statehood declaration.

But most analysts here agreed that it was Arafat and the Palestinian people who had gained most from the postponement.

Reserve Col. Shalom Harari, a former Arab affairs adviser at Israel’s Defense Ministry, suggested that Arafat had made a relatively small concession – – postponing the declaration — in return for international support of eventual Palestinian statehood.

Arafat also scored big because the Palestinian Authority’s “level of intimacy in relations with the United States has increased,” Harari added, referring to a letter President Clinton sent to Arafat as the Central Council was set to convene.

While Clinton, unlike his European counterparts, did not offer his backing for statehood if the declaration were postponed, he did reiterate a stance he made during a visit to the Gaza Strip late last year — that he supports Palestinian aspirations to live as a free people in their own land. He also said he would press Israel to conclude the final-status talks within a year.

Another prize Arafat won in exchange for the postponement of the declaration came from the European Union, which on March 26 issued a statement from Berlin giving its unequivocal backing for eventual Palestinian statehood.

“This is much more than the Balfour Declaration,” Menahem Klein, a member of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University, told JTA. He was referring to the 1917 British declaration favoring the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish national home.

Noting that the Balfour Declaration came in the form of a private letter written by British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, Klein added, “The Berlin declaration and Clinton’s letter are in effect much more. They are a [public] declaration of support by both the United States and the Europeans for Palestinian independence.”

“The entire world community agrees now that the question is no longer whether a Palestinian state should be proclaimed, but when this should take place,” Husseini said.

Arafat scored another big prize last week when he closed ranks with Hamas.

The founder of the Islamic militant group, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who until a few weeks ago had been placed under house arrest by the Palestinian Authority, was invited to last week’s meeting in Gaza as a guest of honor. Yassin gave his silent blessing to Arafat’s tactics.

According to most observers, terror campaigns launched by Hamas and Islamic Jihad during Israel’s 1996 election campaign had played a large part in determining the outcome of that vote.

But ever since the Knesset voted last December to hold early elections, there have be no terror attacks, a situation that Harari described as “amazing.”

“Ever since the announcement of early elections in Israel, the volume of Palestinian unrest has decreased drastically,” he said.

“This proves that when the Palestinian Authority so wishes, it can reduce terrorism and general unrest.”

Even before last week’s meeting, he said, Arafat had convinced Hamas, the major opposition force in the Palestinian political community, that terrorist attacks on the eve of the Israeli elections would be counterproductive to Palestinian interests.

The support Arafat won last week from the Palestinian Central Council should not be underestimated.

In the past, there was strong opposition by radical groups within the PLO to declaring independence until after all of pre-state Palestine comes under their control and until after the return of all Palestinian refugees who fled during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

The council’s decision signals that many of those who were opposed to the peace process have amended their stance.

Hamas, too, has participated in this changed agenda.

Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, wrote over the weekend in the eastern Jerusalem newspaper Al Kuds that Hamas supports the creation of a Palestinian state even on a relatively small portion of pre-state Palestine.

As Klein of Bar-Ilan University pointed out, Hamas has come a long way toward sharing Arafat’s views — which has made Arafat’s victory last week in Gaza even sweeter.

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