What will happen on Sept. 13?


JERUSALEM, Aug. 8 (JTA) — Whenever the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lagged behind an agreed timetable in the peace process, he used to declare that “there are no sacred dates.”

Now, though using somewhat less direct language than his former partner in peace, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is implying the same thing.

On the record, and especially when addressing Arab audiences, Arafat is sticking to Sept. 13 as the date for declaring an independent Palestinian state.

But his spokesmen have explained that while Arafat has the right to make the unilateral declaration, he will not necessary exert that right.

According to the latest evaluations of the Israel Defense Force’s intelligence department, Arafat is now willing to postpone the declaration until Nov. 15, or perhaps even until Jan. 1, the anniversary of the founding of Arafat’s Fatah Party.

Salim Zanoun, the chairman of the Palestine National Council, which is the parliament of the PLO, announced over the weekend that although the council’s recent decision to declare an independent state on Sept. 13 was still in force, it would meet again to decide whether to stick to that date.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials are emulating Arafat’s bob-and-weave rhetoric.

“I hear various speculations and reports in the media,” Palestinian Minister of State Ziad Abu Ziad told JTA this week. “But from Arafat, I hear that he is determined to go ahead and declare independence on Sept. 13. I have heard nothing different from him.”

When asked whether this is final, he modified his statement.

“We still have one month until the target date,” he said. “Let’s wait and see what will happen.”

As the date approaches, various scenarios are being painted as officials from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority deal with political realities after the failed Camp David summit.

A first scenario, painted in rosy hues:

Arafat postpones the declaration until after the U.S. presidential elections — and perhaps until after a final peace agreement is reached with Israel.

During the summit, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly promised Arafat that if they reached a peace agreement, Israel would be the first nation to recognize the new Palestinian state.

With Israeli and American approval, the newly born state would gain instant worldwide recognition.

In a second scenario, employing a palette of bleak tones, Arafat makes the declaration in the absence of a final peace accord and Israel responds with political countermeasures of its own.

Palestinian threats to declare independence have long been part and parcel of the negotiations with Israel.

Last year, Arafat threatened to declare a state on May 4, 1999, the fifth anniversary of the start of Palestinian self-rule.

In response, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank.

Arafat refrained at the time from making the declaration because he did not want it to become an issue in the Israeli elections — which, according to most analysts, would have played into the hands of Netanyahu.

Adopting a stance from Netanyahu’s playbook, Barak has said that Israel would take its own unilateral actions — including annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank — if Arafat declares a state.

Avoiding specific threats, a spokesman for Barak would only say this week that the issue of Palestinian statehood “is currently subject to negotiations, therefore any Palestinian entity will be the result of the present negotiations.”

A third scenario is painted in gray: A unilateral declaration, which would in effect remain on paper with no actual measures on the ground.

Israeli intelligence experts view this scenario as probable, as long as the Palestinians see a chance for an accord with Israel.

The intelligence department of the Israeli army has noted that contrary to doomsday prophecies following the collapse of the Camp David summit, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been exceptionally quiet.

Even if Arafat does declare a state, it is unclear how significant the move would be.

During his current post-Camp David tour of foreign capitals, Arafat met with Turkey’s leaders in Ankara and tried to drum up their support for a Palestinian declaration of independence.

Bulent Ecevit, Turkey’s premier, reminded Arafat that Turkey had already recognized Palestinian independence back in November 1988, when the PLO first proclaimed an independent state.

The declaration had no political significance at the time. It may be just as insignificant now.

Israeli Justice Yossi Beilin, a staunch supporter of an independent Palestinian state, is among those who hold this view.

“Without the recognition of Israel, the declaration of independence would be meaningless,” he said.

This drew a tart retort from Palestinian minister Abu Ziad.

“He can analyze whatever he wishes, but the declaration of independence is very meaningful for us,” he said. The purpose of Arafat’s present tour is to secure as wide as support as possible for our independence, and I am sure we will gain such recognition, including European recognition.”

The fourth scenario is painted in blood:

Arafat declares independence, thousands of Palestinians take to the streets and stage attacks against Israeli settlements and traffic arteries in the territories. The attacks soon deteriorate into pitched battles between Palestinian policemen and Israeli soldiers.

Yisrael Harel, a fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a columnist for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, ruled out this scenario.

In his view, a confrontation over an independent Palestinian state is unlikely because “one way or another,” Arafat will eventually gain the approval of Barak.

Harel, a former chairman of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, does not anticipate violence once a Palestinian state is proclaimed.

Even if the Palestinians do opt for violence, the end result will be the same, according to Harel.

“Israel is not built to cope with low intensity conflicts, and Arafat will not engage in an all-out war,” he said.

Even if Arafat opts for a Palestinian uprising, he said, “I have no doubts that at the end of the day Israel will consent to a Palestinian state.”

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