Israel needs a strategy before Arafat declares a state

Perhaps it was because the world looks different in New York or Washington from the way it does in Gaza or Cairo. But Arafat's hedging may also reflect a growing awareness that a unilateral declaration of statehood is a double-edged sword that Israel might even turn to its own advantage.

It seems as though the prospect of a declaration is looming over everyone's head like some kind of bogeyman.

Israeli analysts are busy probing its implications. Israeli policy-makers are, hopefully, working on all kinds of contingency plans. U.S. officials are trying hard to revive progress in the Oslo interim agreement. And diplomats everywhere else are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what it all means and how they should react.

For the most part, a unilateral declaration will damage the prospects for peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a declaration will most certainly harden Israeli attitudes, prompt the Israeli government to invoke countermeasures, and lead to violence or even full-scale war.

But why should Israel react that way?

A unilateral declaration of independence will provide tremendous emotional gratification for the Palestinians. But after the brass plates on Palestinian offices abroad change from "Delegation" to "Embassy," the euphoria will soon pass.

The same final-status issues acknowledged for decades and formally enshrined in the Declaration of Principles — borders, settlements, Jerusalem, security, refugees — will remain on the table because neither Palestinian nor Israeli declarations can make them go away.

The territory, power, and economic leverage of the two sides will remain the same. What will change are the "soft" elements, and not necessarily to Israel's detriment.

Much of the Palestinian claim on the world's sympathies stems from their condition of statelessness. The prevailing principle of international politics is that a people — which the Palestinians are almost universally acknowledged to be — should have a state.

The perception that Israel is the main obstacle to Palestinian statehood puts it at a disadvantage internationally and particularly complicates its efforts to normalize ties with the rest of the Arab world.

Israel will not strengthen its strategic position — its ability to wage war, combat terrorism or promote its final-status objectives by political means — if it responds to a Palestinian state by proclaiming the peace process dead, annexing territory or imposing an economic blockade.

But if Israel engages in a bit of political jujitsu instead of tit-for-tat, it could do very well for itself.

Consider the effect of Israel recognizing the Palestinian state within the territory now under Palestinian Authority control and even sponsoring the state's admission into the United Nations, while declaring that it stands ready to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the outstanding issues.

Israel would no longer be an obstacle to the principle of Palestinian independence. The Israeli-Palestinian relationship would be transformed from one of occupier-occupied into one of two states grappling with the same kind of ordinary border and other disputes that divide dozens of other countries around the world.

Israel would lose its image — and self-image — as the denier of an elementary Palestinian right. The Palestinians would also lose their image — and perhaps even their self-image — as the downtrodden victim.

There should be no illusion that fancy political footwork alone will resolve the difficult issues. They will still require long and difficult negotiations, which cannot produce complete satisfaction for either side. But fancy political footwork may very well strengthen Israel's position during those negotiations.

Perhaps it is this very prospect that made Arafat think twice before his U.N. speech and will make him think many times more before May. Even if Arafat concludes that strategic analysis argues against a unilateral declaration, however, domestic political considerations will probably win out.

To prepare for that eventuality, Israel shouldn't be thinking about how to get mad or how to get even. Instead, it should be thinking about how to get ahead.