- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

TEL AVIV — A top Palestinian leader said yesterday that the territories now under Israeli control should follow Kosovo’s lead with a unilateral declaration of statehood if U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel fail.

“If things are not going in the direction of actually halting settlement activities, if things are not going in the direction of continuous and serious negotiations, then we should take the step and announce our independence unilaterally,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, currently a senior member of the Palestinian negotiating team.

“Kosovo is not better than us. We deserve independence even before Kosovo, and we ask for the backing of the United States and the European Union for our independence,” Mr. Abed Rabbo said.

Mr. Abed Rabbo has played a prominent role in past negotiations and has been a leader in the armed struggle of Yasser Arafat and other movement elites for more than four decades.

Mr. Abed Rabbo said the Palestinian leadership is discussing the proposal. However, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reacted coolly to the idea, saying in a statement that he remained committed to reaching a negotiated peace agreement this year.

“If we are unable to do that … we will return to our Arab [brothers] to take the appropriate decision,” he said.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that Kosovo independence, which it recognized within 24 hours of Sunday’s declaration, is not a precedent.

But Russia, which opposes Kosovo independence, warned yesterday that other ethnic regions would quickly follow.

“Even now we have seen signs of a chain reaction,” Dmitry Peskov, longtime spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters in Washington.

“Isn’t it damaging for the Middle East peace process? It is,” he said, citing ethnic separatist movements elsewhere in Europe, the Caucasus and Asia.

Russia fears they will cite Kosovo and destabilize a basic principle of national sovereignty that governs international relations.

Mr. Abed Rabbo’s remarks followed a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem yesterday.

The two sides are discussing the most difficult sticking points of a final peace agreement, including the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, claims to Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

In the nearly three months since the U.S.-sponsored Middle East summit in Annapolis restarted peace talks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have made little progress.

After waiting decades for statehood, Palestinians are envious of the international support that Kosovo has received.

Since the former province of Serbia made its declaration Sunday, it has been recognized as a sovereign and independent nation by the U.S. and major European powers such as Britain, France and Germany.

“Even though many countries have voiced reservations regarding the unilateral declaration of the state of Kosovo, still, this experience and experiment should be a positive step that the Palestinians should learn from,” wrote Ahmad Majdalani in the Al Ayyam newspaper.

“Our leadership should consider similar steps and learn lessons from the Kosovo achievement,” he said.

Other Palestinian leaders such as Saeb Erekat, also a member of the negotiating team, expressed opposition to a unilateral declaration.

They noted that the Palestine Liberation Organization under Mr. Arafat adopted a declaration of independence some 20 years ago.

The Gaza Strip, under control of the militant Islamist group Hamas, would not be affected were the Palestinian Authority to declare statehood.

Moreover, with the Israeli army still controlling much of the West Bank, they fear that few would take such a declaration seriously.

“Assume we would declare that tomorrow, what would it mean? If there is no power, or ability to give it expression, it would be a joke,” warned Kadoura Fares, a former Palestinian minister. “You can’t substitute declarations for deeds.”

It’s not the first time that the Palestinians have discussed a declaration of statehood.

With peace talks bogged down in the late 1990s, Mr. Arafat threatened to declare statehood if talks at the time did not produce a deal.

Mr. Fares said that the Palestinians were in a better position a decade ago to consider such a proposal seriously. Now, reeling after years of an uprising against Israel and internal fighting, a declaration of statehood seems unrealistic.

The case of Kosovo is also raising eyebrows among Israelis. Some are pointing to the use of international peacekeeping forces in the Albanian enclave as a model for allowing Israeli troops to withdraw from the West Bank.

“If there is an operative lesson that Israeli policy-makers should adopt … it’s removing their historic opposition to internationalizing the Israeli Palestinian conflict,” wrote Dror Etkes, a member of the left wing Peace Now group, on the Ynet.com news Web site.

• David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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