Palestinians lift statehood threat to save talks

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The Independent Online

The Palestinians caved in to American and Israeli pressure yesterday by lifting a threat to declare unilateral statehood on Wednesday in order to give peace yet another chance.

The Palestinians caved in to American and Israeli pressure yesterday by lifting a threat to declare unilateral statehood on Wednesday in order to give peace yet another chance.

The Palestinian Central Council bowed to the inevitable by delaying the declaration until 15 November in order to continue talks with Israel which are snagged on a dispute over a piece of sacred real estate no bigger than three soccer fields.

Bill Clinton - whose hopes of crowning his presidency with a Middle East peace deal are fast shrivelling - now faces a race against the clock.

For Yasser Arafat's largely tame politicians, the postponement is a tactical move. But for their constituents, for whom the Oslo peace process has brought disappointment, delays, broken promises, and sporadic violence, it is a reason for deepening cynicism.

Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians are crammed into a fenced-in, rubbish-strewn, 25-mile long oblong of coast land, appeared to greet the postponement more in sorrow than in anger. "It makes no difference to us any more," said Mohammed Aladin, 35, a nurse in a hospital in Gaza, where the 129-member council had gathered.

The seven years that have elapsed since the Oslo agreement may have enriched the politicians. But it has done nothing for Mr Aladin, nor thousands of others living in the narrow, fetid streets of Gaza City.

"We already have a sort of a state, but there are many deficiencies," Mr Aladin said. "If I want to go anywhere outside Gaza I have to go through an Israeli checkpoint. I doubt that will ever change."

Mr Arafat had threatened to declare statehood, whether he had a deal with Israel or not, after Wednesday's seventh anniversary of the Oslo agreement. But the Palestinian Central Council faced the stark reality that the Palestinians cannot make any meaningful declaration of statehood without Israeli consent and international support, particularly from the Americans.

The Israelis - who have a throttle grip over Palestinian borders, economy, infrastructure, water and security - had earlier made clear that a unilateral declaration would bring the negotiations to a halt. The US had weighed in with a warning that the declaration would endanger $100m in annual aid.

For all their bluster and bravado, the Palestinian leadership had little choice. Remarks by Nabil Shaath, a leading negotiator and Mr Arafat's de facto foreign minister, suggested that the declaration threat was always a matter of tactics. It would principally be an "act of political defiance" intended as a protest against Israel's repeated violation of deadlines during the peace process, he said.

After meeting Mr Arafat and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, separately in New York during last week's UN millennium summit, Mr Clinton was unable to break the log jam about sovereignty over the Haram as-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City - a block of land no more than a few hundred metres in length and width. Crucially, it is both the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock - among the holiest of Muslim religious sites - and the presumed location of Solomon's Temple, the most hallowed place in Judaism and one quietly revered even by secular Jews.

But remarks by Mr Shaath suggest that there is much other unsettled business. "We want to discuss Jerusalem, but also refugees, land and security. Israel is keeping us hostage to the issue of sovereignty of the holy places."