Peace drive in limbo as Palestinians ponder UDI

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THE CALLING of early elections in Israel has simplified no one's life in the Middle East conflict, least of all that of Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian president must decide whether to declare statehood in May, as he has so often promised, or delay the move and risk a fresh explosion of frustration among his people, which would only play into the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last night reaction in the Arab world to the collapse of Mr Netanyahu's government was conspicuous by its absence. It reflects one of two things: uncertainty over what will come after the detested Mr Netanyahu, or despair that anything can now resurrect the so-called peace process.

Israel's implementation of the two-month-old land-for-peace deal in Wye, Maryland, stands suspended until the Palestinians have fulfilled a raft of new conditions imposed by the outgoing Prime Minister to placate his right wing.

That was not changed by yesterday's meaningless statement from Jerusalem that it is ready to proceed with implementation of Wye even during the campaign, assuming the Palestinians go along with their end of a "bargain" unilaterally imposed by Israel.

In reality, everything is frozen after Palestinian rejection of the demands set out on Sunday by the Likud-led Cabinet: abandonment of the right to declare their own state, the surrender of their claims to Jerusalem, an end to violence, and acknowledgement that Mr Netanyahu had not after all agreed to set free Palestinians jailed for murder.

An election date will be set next week but Palestinians assume Mr Netanyahu will try to hold it in late April, as near as possible to the 4 May deadline imposed by the 1993 Oslo accords for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, which makes that day the trigger for a possible unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"May 4 is a sacred date," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a close aide of the Palestinian president. "Nothing can stop us declaring a state on that date, and the Israeli elections should not be used to delay implementation of the agreement." In truth, delay is inevitable.

The risk therefore is that the Palestinians, who have already taken violently to the streets in protest at Mr Netanyahu's refusal to implement the Wye terms, will do so again. This would provide new grist for the his tough security platform, just as his razor-thin victory over the Labour leader, Shimon Peres, was probably clinched by Palestinian suicide bombings in early 1996.

The overriding hope of the Palestinians, the Arab world, and the Clinton administration is victory for Ehud Barak's Labour party or the moderate Amnon Shahak, a former chief of staff who has not even announced he will be a candidate, but, according to polls, would trounce Mr Netanyahu in a head-to-head direct election.This could see a centrist-Labour coalition that might resuscitate the "peace process".

While Mr Netanyahu vows to annex land around Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in areas he deems vital for Israel's security if Mr Arafat crosses the Rubicon of statehood on 4 May, Mr Barak has not tipped his hand.

But yesterday he warned Mr Arafat not to declare a state without having negotiated security arrangements beforehand. Nor would Israel tolerate a Palestinian army, the division of Jerusalem or a return to the country's original borders before the Six-Day War of 1967.

Even a new government in Jerusalem will not therefore bring the final settlement much closer.