Saturday, May 1, 1999

Arafat postpones
Palestinian statehood

Bullet The issue: Yasser Arafat had threatened to declare a Palestinian state on May 4.
Bullet Our view: By withdrawing that threat, Arafat averted a showdown with Israel.

Yasser Arafat has backed away from his threat to declare a Palestinian state next Tuesday, thereby averting a showdown with Israel. But he continues to threaten a unilateral declaration of an independent state at some later date if Israel refuses to meet his demands.

May 4 was selected because it was a target date by which final negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians were to have been completed under the Oslo peace agreement. In fact, they have barely begun. The Palestinian Central Council, at Arafat's urging, abandoned the idea of a declaration on May 4 because it could ignite a voter backlash in the May 17 Israeli elections that could help re-elect the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Commenting on the Palestinian decision, Netanyahu said,"They delayed it until after the election because they know that as long as I am prime minister of Israel, a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital will not be established."

The council will take up the issue again in June, after the Israeli elections. If Netanyahu wins, the likelihood of securing further Israeli concessions will be slim and the option of declaring statehood may seem more attractive. If the Palestinians go ahead, Israel may respond by rejecting any further negotiations and annexing portions of the West Bank, creating a potential for violence.

Although he may never make good on his threats, Arafat has shrewdly exploited the issue. He whipped up Palestinian enthusiasm for a declaration of statehood last year, then lobbied for support abroad. The prospect of a showdown on May 4 enabled Arafat to extract a pledge from President Clinton to help him push for a final negotiated deal with the Israelis within a year.

The Palestinian goal of an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem was not promised in the Oslo agreement. Rather, the ultimate status of the West Bank and Gaza was left to negotiations.

The United States, which has assumed the role of facilitator in the negotiations, has not taken a position on a Palestinian state for this reason. But Hillary Clinton publicly stated that she supports one, thereby tipping the administration's hand and irritating the Israelis.

Palestinian statehood may be negotiable, but the status of Jerusalem could be an insurmountable problem. No Israeli leader, conservative or liberal, can afford to surrender or share Jerusalem after the experience of the previous division of the city from 1948 to 1967.

For now the Palestinian strategy is to avoid providing more campaign ammunition for Netanyahu in the forthcoming elections, in the hope that a more flexible Israeli government will emerge. But that merely puts off the toughest decisions.


Serb maverick’s firing
after peace overture

Bullet The issue: A Yugoslav deputy premier was sacked after calling for a compromise to end the war in Kosovo.
Bullet Our view: The hardening of the Serb position in Kosovo should not weaken NATO's resolve.

A Yugoslav deputy prime minister's call for creation of a U.N.-led international peace force for Kosovo brought hope that a peaceful end could be achieved. That hope has been dashed with the deputy's firing, as Slobodan Milosevic's regime appears determined to stick to its self-destructive course.

Vuk Draskovic, a leader of anti-communist demonstrations in Belgrade three years ago, was brought into the government in January vowing to seek reforms. His presence may have been considered important to Milosevic's building of a coalition in support of policies in Kosovo. But he quickly became a dissonant voice in the Milosevic government.

On Sunday, Draskovic said he expected Russia and the West to come to a compromise over Kosovo at the United Nations soon, and he urged Belgrade to accept it. Two days later, he called for creation of a U.N.-led international peace force to bring a quick end to the NATO bombing campaign, which he said was bringing his country "closer and closer to Hiroshima."

Draskovic had not cleared his statements with Milosevic, and they were a sharp departure from the country's hard-line policy. The nationalist Serbian Radical Party headed by Serbian Deputy Premier Vojislav Seselj was quick to call Draskovic a traitor for making the statements.

Milosevic heads a complex power structure that includes political parties other than his own. The Serbian Radical Party and Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Party have been a part of that structure. While the firing of Draskovic appears to move the coalition to a more uncompromising position, it also could erode support for the country's intransigence.

Draskovic's departure makes an early settlement of the war in Kosovo seem less likely. NATO bombing should continue until the wisdom of Draskovic's statements becomes obvious to Milosevic.

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