On the ongoing discussions for a Palestinian state declaration
Palestine, Reporter's View, 4/28/1999
For many Palestinians, convening the Central Council of the PLO in Gaza this week was not only a significant event to take a decision on statehood declaration but it was also an occasion in which national unity was seen closer than ever before between the Palestinian government and the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
Many Palestinians consider the participation of Hamas in the Council meetings in Gaza as a personal victory for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Though the Islamic militant group has attended the first session on Tuesday in the observer's capacity, their decision to be present had backed up Arafat's strategy for peace in the Middle East.
Unlike the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas decided to attend and voice its opposition to any deferral of the statehood declaration, scheduled on May 4 as the interim period of the agreements between the PLO and Israel comes to an end. A leading FATAH supporter in Jerusalem who is opposed to any postponement in the statehood declaration said he could not suppress his appreciation of the Hamas decision to participate while he strongly and critically denounced the PFLP. "I do not understand the reasoning of our friends in the PFLP," he said on Wednesday. "On one hand, they do not want to be part of the peace process and on the other they fight to improve the outcome of every diplomatic step Arafat makes," he said. He noted that in almost all the crucial decisions the PLO has taken since it was proclaimed in 1965 the PFLP was absent under the disguise of boycotting Arafat's moderation. "But look at the outcome. Arafat has literally succeeded in his quest for international recognition and the those opposed to him have failed to limit his diplomatic offensive."
Close aides to Arafat believe that the latest round of meetings he had with world leaders had fostered his stand that advocates a postponement of the declaration of the Palestinian state in return for diplomatic gains. But that wasn't the only support Arafat received over the past few weeks. A poll published on the eve of a PLO meeting to discuss whether to declare a state in May showed that nearly half of the Palestinians support delaying the proclamation. According to the survey, conducted by the Nablus-based Centre for Palestine Research and Studies (CPRS), 48 percent of Palestinians favour the deferral of the declaration as opposed to 39 percent last February. The CPRS poll, which had a three- percent margin of error, surveyed 1,315 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from April 15-17.
Some observers believe that the mounting support for a deferral of a statehood declaration in return for international guarantees was the reason why the Palestine Legislative Council decided to keep out of the debate on the question and left it to the Central Council to decide. Moreover, Hamas wouldn't have participated in the meeting if it hadn't been for the public understanding for the need to defer a state proclamation. Despite the tense relations that characterized ties between the Palestinian government and Hamas over the past few months, Hamas had responded positively to Arafat's invitation to attend the meeting. First it was a personal invitation to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the movement. Then it was an official invitation to the movement as a whole.
Sheikh Yassin was quoted as saying that his decision to participate was taken out of concern for the paramount national Palestinian interest. Islamic sources close to Hamas in Gaza said the movement was interested in liberating the Palestinian government of the Oslo Accords and invigorating national unity among the Palestinian people in the face of the Israeli occupiers. The Hamas sources noted that the current participation of Hamas was the first of its kind in a PLO body meeting.
Arafat had concern that a declaration of a state at this time is not in the interest of the Palestinian people as it plays to the advantage of a hawkish prime minister like Benyamin Netanyahu. He also expected the US Administration to compensate the Palestinians for not declaring their state as scheduled. The compensation, however, was not as big as it was expected but still it served the main goal for which it was issued. It helped Arafat and his aides to convince Central Council members that "swimming against the current is not always a right decision to make" using the words of one Arafat aide.
Arafat, the aide said, was very much pleased with the decision of the European Union which stated in Berlin last month that the Palestinians "had an unqualified right to self-determination including the option of a state." Arafat also took note of the close coordination between the US and the EU prior to the Berlin announcement and was relieved to see that the US did not criticize the declaration while only Netanyahu denounced it. It was within this context of complicated state of affair that Arafat decided to convene the 124-member Central Council in Gaza while hinting in advance that no crucial decisions were to be taken before the Israeli elections.
The move for not taking any decision for the time being was clear from the outset. The cluster of statements made by Palestinian officials indicated that the Central Council would consider itself in constant consultations for a few days without having to take a decisive decision on the question of statehood declaration. "It is very simple," said PLC member Marwan Kanafani who is also an advisor to President Arafat. "Disappointment will hit both those who expect the Central Council to call for a postponement or for a declaration as scheduled. The decision will be something that will reflect exactly the determination of the authority on this particular issue and the flexibility of the president and authority in recognizing the requests of the international community and of our allies," he added.
Council head Salim Zaanoun was more right to the point when he said that the session could last for days and perhaps until after the Israeli elections. The reason for such a move, Palestinian sources said, is to make it more difficult for Netanyahu to manipulate the question of a statehood declaration in favour of his election campaign. It also aims at keeping the momentum the question of the state has gained lately and to accede to requests from the US, European Union, Russia, and most of the Arab world, including King Abdullah of Jordan, President Mubarak of Egypt and even Libyan President Ghaddafi.
Palestinian central council and the establishment of a state
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International support for Arafat
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