Even for Palestinians, a state cannot solve all of their problems

Today, Palestinians find themselves in nearly the same position.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat will surely declare a state on the eve of May 4, 1999. On that date, the five-year interim phase of the Oslo Accords runs out.

The clock began ticking when Israel and the Palestinians signed the agreement, which stated clearly that both sides must conclude a final-status agreement at the beginning of the third year of the interim phase but no later than the fifth year. So unless an agreement is reached before that, Palestinians will consider themselves free to make a unilateral move towards statehood.

Some have termed Arafat's repeated statements that he will declare a state in May 1999 as a ploy aimed at forcing the hesitant Israelis to move ahead in the peace process. Others have warned the Palestinian leadership that it doesn't have the necessary ingredients for a viable state.

While generally supportive, the Palestinian public is withholding judgment on this issue, waiting to find out how key neighboring countries, the United States and Europe will react to such a call.

There is no doubt that Arafat has his work cut out for him if this long-term Palestinian aspiration is to become a reality.

To begin with, look at the plus side for Palestinians. Declaring a state while Palestinians are living on the land is certainly more credible and powerful than the declaration 10 years ago from faraway Algiers.

Palestinians also have the beginnings of basic institutional support. An 88-seat elected legislature exists and is learning what it means to make legislation.

Governmental institutions — from ministries to specialized institutions like the water authority, environment authority and monetary authority — are all in place and working. Palestinians have birth certificates, passports and driving licenses issued by Palestinian government offices. We have Palestinian stamps, national and private radio and television, a privatized multimillion-dollar telephone company and now even a casino.

On the negative side for us, the West Bank and Gaza are separated. The international borders of both the West Bank and Gaza are under Israeli control. Palestinians have neither water, energy sources nor food reserves that can withstand any Israeli siege.

Politically, Palestinians have mixed opinions of the Palestinian Authority's track record since its establishment in 1994. While declaring a state will certainly galvanize the public, Palestinians here and around the world have strong reservations about the Palestinian Authority's record on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Arafat must institute major changes in policy in order to ensure the people's support and their willingness to make the sacrifices that such a declaration might require.

Externally, a Palestinian state will generally receive wide support. If we can judge by the support the Palestinians received for declaring a state back in 1988, more than 100 countries will recognize Palestine. The big question remains how four key countries will react: Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration has stated that Israel is opposed to a Palestinian state. Ordinary citizens, as well as business people, are bracing themselves for the possibility of a tough Israeli reaction.

Egypt and Jordan, which already treat the Palestinian Authority as a sovereign state, will undoubtedly reconfirm their support. But many Palestinians are wondering whether those two neighboring Arab countries will provide more than political and public support to the newly declared state.

Jordan and Egypt will be put to the test. Will they, for example, deploy their armies to help break a possible indefinite siege that Israel might place on the new state?

How the United States will react to such an act is anyone's guess.

In the final analysis one thing is clear. Palestinians know what they want — an independent Palestinian state. And the Israeli government knows only what it doesn't want — an independent Palestinian state.

As we move closer to "P-Day," I assert that the people who know what they want will have the best chance at success.