- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip About 20 minutes' drive south of the Israeli border, a crooked sign directs drivers to the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, where many details of the Palestinian push for statehood are being managed.

Because the sign is bent and twisted, the arrow points upward instead of to the left, prompting a Palestinian taxi driver to remark very seriously about the relationship between God's work and the work conducted at the ministry.

Inside, officials are conducting special two-week courses for diplomats who have been called home from the Palestine Liberation Organization's 86 representative offices around the world.

The course work covers matters they will have to handle following the proclamation of a Palestinian state: how to issue visas, register expatriates and present credentials to a head of state.

Despite signs that Yasser Arafat is backing away from his pledge to unilaterally declare independence on Sept. 13 if no peace treaty is reached with Israel, the timing is no coincidence. Civil servants working in dilapidated stone buildings throughout the Gaza Strip's northern coast have been instructed to prepare for the transition.

"Yes, this is directly related to September 13," said ministry Director-General Ahmed Soboh. "We don't make policy, but we have instructions to be ready for sovereignty by that time," he said, eyeing a blown-up photograph of Mr. Arafat perched on the wall to his right.

The decision whether to declare or again postpone statehood will be made by the man in the picture.

In the weeks since the collapse of the Camp David summit, Mr. Arafat has been weighing his options and calculating the costs a harsh international rebuke and possibly sanctions if he declares; a mountain of domestic scorn if he puts it off.

Lately, he appears to be leaning toward delaying the announcement, the date of which will be debated at a meeting early next month of the Palestinians' leadership body, the Palestinian Central Council. But on the ground, preparations for independence are moving ahead.

Since their first interim peace deal with Israel in 1993, Palestinians have been accruing the symbols of sovereignty the first Palestinian postage stamp, an international dialing code, a Palestinian passport while statehood itself has remained elusive.

When Mr. Arafat put off a declaration of independence in May 1998 under pressure from Israel and the United States, some Palestinians began mocking the symbols as reminders of a status they'll never achieve.

Now, seven years after the process began, the dream of statehood appears tantalizingly close.

At Camp David last month, Israel offered the Palestinians their own state on roughly 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a more generous proposal than most believed Israel would ever make. But disputes over other issues, mainly sovereignty over Jerusalem's Old City, stood in the way of a deal.

While peace moves quietly continue U.S. Middle East troubleshooter Dennis Ross arrived here yesterday amid efforts to convene a second summit. Many analysts believe the gaps exposed at Camp David last month are unbridgeable.

"The most important thing is to have a chance to talk to both sides and then we'll see what we can do to work with them to try to overcome the differences and move things along," Mr. Ross told reporters.

In his clearest reference yet to Palestinian statehood, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that Israel would agree to such a declaration if the Palestinians ended their conflict with Israel.

"If the Palestinian leadership is prepared to confront the challenge of setting up a Palestinian state and solving the hardships of its people," he said, "it must understand that a condition for that is ending the conflict with Israel."

But if no agreement is struck, Palestinian diplomats are hoping to persuade most countries to recognize their state when it is declared unilaterally.

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