News Analysis: Palestinians Again Learn Arafat Calls All the Shots

Yasser Arafat has done it again. Despite strong internal pressures to go ahead and declare independence on Sept. 13, as he had promised to do, the Palestinian Authority president this week convinced an advisory body of the PLO, the Palestinian Central Council, to defer the declaration.

In the past, Arafat would say, “Whoever does not like our determination to declare our state on Sept. 13 can go drink the waters of Gaza.”

This week, he and other Palestinian officials had to indulge in some verbal acrobatics to explain the change of heart.

For his part, Arafat argued that a Palestinian state already exists, thereby making the need for a declaration less than pressing.

Negotiator Nabil Sha’ath characterized the council’s decision to postpone the declaration as part of an effort to keep the faltering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on track and to “give peace yet another chance.”

Once again, the Palestinian public learned this week that there is little alternative to Arafat’s decisions.

During its two days of meetings over the weekend in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Central Council gave Arafat the prerogative to set the date for declaring independence, “depending on progress in the negotiations” with Israel.

The council also decided “to begin the process of building the sovereignty of a Palestinian state” – including setting up elections and working toward membership in the United Nations – and said preparatory committees would present their reports on such issues to the council no later than Nov. 15.

That date was selected because it is a historic anniversary: On Nov. 18, 1988, the Palestine National Council proclaimed independence during a meeting in Algiers.

During its weekend meeting, the council made no commitment that Nov. 15 is the new target date for declaring independence. Instead, the door was left open for negotiations with Israel.

Israeli officials applauded the decision to postpone the declaration – but they said it was predictable, given the position of the international community.

After the failure of the Camp David summit in July, Arafat made the rounds of world capitals to drum up support for a Palestinian state. Nearly everywhere he went, Arafat received the same message: Don’t take unilateral steps that could hurt the peace process.

Given such reactions, Arafat had little choice but to postpone the declaration, say Israeli analysts.

They agree that despite his earlier uncompromising statements – including his patented “go drink the waters of Gaza” comment – Arafat wants the peace process to continue.

“Arafat has proven that in order to attain sovereignty on sacred sites, one could disregard sacred dates,” political analyst Oded Granot wrote in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv.

Two of Arafat’s closest advisers, Abdullah Horani and Nabil Amer, were quoted Monday as saying that the Palestinians simply have no alternative but to engage in continued political dialogue with Israel.

They downplayed the option of a violent confrontation as a way of convincing the Israelis to be more flexible – out of concern that violence may only harden the Israeli stand, and possibly lead to the creation of a national unity government between Labor and Likud.

As a face-saving gesture, Arafat gave the Palestinian Central Council the green light to initiate steps that would create the infrastructure for the soon-to- be-announced Palestinian state.

According to a statement issued at the end of its weekend meetings, the council declared that the interim period of peacemaking with Israel is over as of Sept. 13.

What precisely this means has been the subject of some debate. The common Palestinian interpretation was that although they would refrain from declaring a state, Palestinian officials are now free to act as they wish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But on this, too, Palestinian spokesmen refrained from spelling out exactly what this might mean.

Israeli analysts said Palestinian officials would not take unilateral, forceful measures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They pointed out that Palestinian officials had not done so following the collapse of the Camp David summit.

Instead, the Palestinian leadership is expected to start preparing for elections – local, parliamentary and presidential – as well as drawing up the constitution of the future Palestinian state.

Predictably, Palestinian opposition groups reacted negatively to the postponement of the statehood declaration, but by and large it appeared that the Palestinian public is willing to give Arafat yet another chance to play it his way.

Even Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was relatively mild in his reaction. While issuing his usual call for armed resistance, he also praised Arafat’s tough stance on Jerusalem, which is the major point holding up an Israeli- Palestinian agreement.

As soon as the Sept. 13 hurdle was overcome, Arafat went to Egypt to report to President Hosni Mubarak on the proceedings and on the outlook for the negotiations with Israel.

The initial Egyptian reaction was positive. Radio Cairo described the resolution of the council as “a moderate decision, which was intended to keep the negotiations’ door open to achieve peace.”

It was now up to Israel to demonstrate similar flexibility, said the Egyptians.

In Lebanon, the militant, Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization called the resolution a “waste of time.”

Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary-general, repeated his call that the Palestinians seek liberation through armed resistance.

Meanwhile, the move appears to have had little impact on the stalled Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

Palestinian officials said Monday that Israel should respond to the decision by making concessions of its own.

Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat urged Israel to recognize Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Sha’ath suggested that Israel should withdraw to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War and should accept the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they abandoned during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

Israel promptly rejected the calls.

Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami described the Palestinian Central Council’s postponement as “commendable,” but added that “this is not something we should pay for.”

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