Moving the Goalposts

The Israeli elections of 1999 will be memorable for, among other things, the uncertainty attached to Yasser Arafat's collateral threat to declare Palestinian statehood on May 4, the end of Oslo's interim timetable. By the time that day arrived, few were surprised by the decision to wait until Israelis chose their next government, but Arafat kept up enough suspense to make things interesting.

Actually, it was a "no-brainer" for any intelligence service: there were no visible preparations for a big independence party, no orders for flags, balloons and fireworks - and no digging in for a showdown with the IDF. But what was astonishing is the way Arafat quietly managed to scrap the Olso Accords and breathe artificial life into UN resolution 181 with the approval of the whole world.

Arafat delivered a glowing report of his 56-nation tour to the marathon session of the 125 member PNC Central Committee meeting in Gaza in late April to decide the timing of a declaration. He needed it, as the audience included Oslo opponents Haidar Abdul-Shafi, Hamas cleric Ahmed Yassin, Islamic Jihad and the DFLP - the broadest Palestinian pow-wow in decades.

With some exaggerations, Arafat reported his many hosts agreed with his right to declare a state, a "natural right" based on UNGA resolution 181 (the 1947 partition plan) -- and not UNSC resolutions 242 and 338, the bedrock of Oslo. He said these national leaders blamed Netanyahu for suspending the Wye River agreement signed last October. He said these nations were prepared to enforce UN resolutions 181 and 194, which gives Palestinians who fled hostilities in 1948 the "right of return." Mr. Arafat even claimed to have secured UN Secretary -General Kofi Annan's acceptance of 181, although Annan has not confirmed this.

As proof of recent advancements, he cited the European Union's Berlin Declaration in March that resolved the Palestinian right to create a state is not subject to an Israeli veto. He noted the UN Commission on Human Rights, meeting at the same time in Geneva, was passing a resolution over Israeli objections calling for Palestinian self-determination on the basis of 181 and 194, without any mention of the Oslo process or 242 and 338. He pointed to progress at the UN to reconstitute the United Nations Trusteeship Council to hold lands "occupied" by Israel in 1948 not allotted the Jewish state in the partition plan. And he held in his hand a six-point letter from US President Bill Clinton which restated an earlier pledge to uphold the Palestinians' right to determine "their future as a free people on their land."

The Clinton letter, sent to dissuade a unilateral declaration, expressed support for Wye implementation and "accelerated" final status talks targeted to end in one year. The US also suggested a summit with Israel's (new) prime minister in July to press things along. Looking at the bright side, Israeli officials said the letter did not blame Israel for the current impasse, cited 242 and 338, and did not promise the Palestinians an eventual state. Netanyahu guardedly called Arafat "a wise man" for taking seriously his threats to react to a declaration with forceful measures. He concluded Clinton "help[ed] the Palestinians get down from the tree."

But his main electoral foe, Labor's Ehud Barak said the Clinton letter provided a tremendous boost for Arafat, classifying it "almost a Balfour declaration." Some Israeli analysts agreed, saying the PLO leader had consolidated support at home, and won global backing for forming a state soon, with or without Oslo. They chided Netanyahu for taking Arafat's threat of a declaration on May 4 seriously.

Senior Palestinian sources admit Arafat had not seriously entertained the idea of declaring a state for several months now - but the reason cited is that Netanyahu's halting of the Wye withdrawals left him with too little territory for a viable state. In other words, Netanyahu foiled their plans, and deserves credit. Ultimately, the PLO opted not to help him at the ballot box.

ALTHOUGH LARGELY overlooked in the just-completed campaign, most Israelis would quietly concede the Netanyahu era made the country feel like a safer place to be. Only three years ago, buses were exploding and the government of Shimon Peres appeared impotent at curtailing further Palestinian terrorism. Yet as Netanyahu's new policies reduced the threat of terror, it became an issue relegated to the backburner by the time of this election, leaving Netanyahu, in a sense, a victim of his own success. Still, the people remember the change 36 months ago, even the ones who just voted out Netanyahu.

There was a sense of relief that Arafat faced a tougher standard of Oslo compliance, which tested his true intentions. After two years of this strict oversight, Arafat tired of having to play straight and decided to move the goalposts. It was actually about one year ago (not when Wye stalled in January) that he abandoned Oslo and began touting this May 4th as the date for unilaterally declaring independence. Soon after, then-Infrastructure minister Ariel Sharon first suggested annexation of most of Judea/Samaria as a response. When Arafat failed to seize more land under Wye, he reached a turning point which, it remains to be seen, is either tactical for bargaining purposes… or a complete bypass of the only proven road to peace - resolution 242 and direct bilateral talks.

The incertitude of who will lead Israel in final-status talks is over. But the suspense will persist as to where Arafat is heading and whether he is sincere about a permanent settlement under Oslo for the sake of peace. With Barak's win, it is fitting that the Labor party, which chose the slippery Arafat as its peace partner, will have to deal with his latest deceptive schemes.

David Parsons

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