Countdown to Palestinian state now at 12 months

JERUSALEM — As Israel celebrated its 50th anniversary, Yasser Arafat vowed that in a year the Palestinians would celebrate their own independence.

The chairman of the Palestinian Authority reiterated publicly that on May 4, 1999, the state of Palestine would be proclaimed — with or without Israel's consent.

In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his warning that if the Palestinians declared independence unilaterally, Israel, too, would take one-sided measures — a veiled threat that it would annex disputed territories in the West Bank.

Amid the rhetoric stands the reality that time is running out on the Oslo process. According to the Israeli-Palestinian accords, a permanent-status agreement is supposed to be finalized by next May. What happens after that date if no agreement is reached has been a matter of dispute.

According to the Palestinians, they have the legal right to declare independence when the Oslo timetable expires.

But an Israeli attorney who was a key figure in negotiating the Oslo accords disagrees. Yoel Singer, former legal adviser to the Israeli delegation in the peace negotiations, pointed out that the Palestinians were ignoring a clause stating that no party would unilaterally introduce changes in the status quo in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Whether the Palestinians could and would declare an independent state without an agreement with Israel strikes emotions on both sides.

But at least one scholar said the question of Palestinian statehood is moot because the Palestine National Council had already declared independence in 1988.

"I don't see much of a difference between that declaration of independence, and a possible declaration next year, except for the fact that now they are here," said Barry Rubin, senior resident scholar at Bar-Ilan University's Begin/Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Having established self-rule in most of the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank, a Palestinian state is, in fact, in the making. Even hard-liners in the Israeli Cabinet, such as Ariel Sharon, believe that an independent Palestinian state is unavoidable.

The notion of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state strikes fear in the hearts of many Israelis, though an increasing number are resigned to accepting such an entity. But, if it is to happen, the Israeli government wants that to result from final-status talks, which have not yet begun and, therefore, could continue beyond May 1999.

In the meantime, what the world's reaction to a unilateral declaration of independence might be is in doubt.

During a visit to Bonn last month, Arafat was told by German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel that a unilateral declaration of independence could make the situation "more and more critical."

Rubin said such a move could be a public relations disaster because the "government of Israel could blame Arafat for having walked away" from Oslo, and that, therefore, "Israel has absolutely no obligation toward the Palestinians."

To some Israeli and Palestinian observers, however, Arafat's repeated pronouncements on statehood amount to posturing in the course of peace negotiations.

"I do not believe that Arafat's declaration that he would take a unilateral step was serious," said Sa'id Zeidani, dean of the faculty of arts at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "Arafat knows that Israel's reaction will be hard. The very least it would do would be to put a siege on the new state and impose economic sanctions against it."

Yair Hirschfeld, of Haifa University's department of Middle Eastern studies, said a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence could still be avoided.

"Much depends on the progress in the peace talks," said Hirschfeld, who was one of the key academic figures in talks that led to the first Oslo Accord. "If there is sufficient progress, Arafat may extend the interim period for a year or two and refrain from taking provocative measures."