- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2000

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Palestinian leaders, abandoning Yasser Arafat's pledge "never, never" to retreat on statehood, yesterday put off by at least two months their proclamation of an independent nation in order to give peace talks with Israel one more chance.
The 129-member Palestinian miniparliament made the decision on the second day of a meeting in the Gaza Strip at the urging of Mr. Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, who had repeatedly promised to declare a state on Sept. 13.
Mr. Arafat risked a loss of credibility with his own people by pushing for the delay the second in less than two years but avoided for now the risks of a violent confrontation with Israel and international isolation.
The decision of the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) was welcomed by Israel and the United States.
But while the move created a breathing space for negotiations, the PCC still maintains its right to act on statehood later this year and Israeli officials noted there was no real timetable for a resumption of negotiations.
"The PCC has decided from this day to take steps, sovereignty steps, by Nov. 15," Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top Arafat adviser, told reporters waiting outside the PCC meeting in Gaza. The gathering had been closed to journalists.
"The PCC will meet before Nov. 15 to decide on the declaration," he said. Other officials said the council had deliberately refrained from setting Nov. 15 as a firm date for a declaration, so as to avoid another embarrassing delay.
The move comes after repeated pledges by Mr. Arafat to declare Palestinian independence on Sept. 13, the date set by Israelis and Palestinians a year ago for the conclusion of a final peace accord.
"Never, never. There is no retreat on the fixed timetable of the declaration of the state," Mr. Arafat told the newspapers Okaz and Saudi Gazette early in August.
"It will be declared at the fixed time, which is Sept. 13, God willing, regardless of those who agree or disagree."
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed at the Camp David peace talks in July to accept Palestinian statehood, but the two sides failed to clinch a deal. The prospects for renewed negotiations were uncertain with conflicting reports from the two sides about what was achieved in President Clinton's meetings with Mr. Arafat and Mr. Barak at the United Nations last week.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States had been expecting the Palestinians to vote for a delay.
"We still recognize that there is a difficult road ahead… . So we will continue to look for more ways to be supportive," Mr. Crowley said.
Barak spokesman Gadi Baltiansky said last night that Israel sees the PCC decision "as a positive step in the right direction, which is connected to the uniform stance of the international community against unilateral steps that might hurt the peace process."
On the streets of Gaza, Palestinians said before the vote that they were hoping Mr. Arafat would make good on his promise to declare independence.
"We don't need Israel and we don't need America. All we need is our land and our state. God willing, they will declare," said shop owner Ahmed Aharar, hours before the PCC announcement.
Israelis and Palestinians have been slogging away in peace talks for much of the 1990s, but began serious negotiations on a final peace treaty only a few months ago. Under several interim accords signed since 1993, Palestinians have gained control of about 40 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They want the entire area, including East Jerusalem, for their state.
Israel has agreed to hand over 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, which it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, but negotiations dragged over the division of Jerusalem, specifically the Old City, a 220-acre walled area that includes religious shrines holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
One shrine, which Israel calls the Temple Mount and Palestinians call Haram al-Sharif, is at the heart of the dispute. Mr. Arafat wants full sovereignty over the shrine, which Israel refuses to cede.
Israel had threatened to take a series of countermeasures had Palestinians declared a state unilaterally, including the annexation of parts of the West Bank. The tit-for-tat would likely have touched off another wave of violence in the West Bank, where Israeli troops far outnumber and are better equipped than Palestinian forces.
Areas of the West Bank that Mr. Arafat does control are fragmented and any unilateral steps toward statehood would have been symbolic.
"In the end, Arafat understands that statehood is meaningless if it isn't in coordination with Israel," said one Israeli official close to the talks.
Mr. Arafat, who has led the Palestinian drive for independence for more than 30 years, first as a guerrilla and now as a statesman, addressed the PCC in his signature military fatigues and checkered headdress.
Delegates to the conference said Mr. Arafat talked about a last-chance push for peace with Israel.
Senior Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rdainah had said in Gaza on Saturday that the two sides would begin four weeks of "decisive" negotiations today.
But Shlomo Ben-Ami, the acting Israeli foreign minister who serves as a top peace negotiator, said he knew of no plans for reviving peace talks with the Palestinians.
"I am not aware that anything is scheduled right now between us and the Palestinians," Mr. Ben-Ami said on Israeli radio.
Mr. Arafat delayed statehood last year on the eve of an Israeli election campaign in which Mr. Barak ousted former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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