JERUSALEM — Palestinian leaders Thursday formally delayed a long-anticipated proclamation of statehood, deferring the decision until after Israeli elections and avoiding--for now--a major and potentially violent crisis.
Ending a three-day, closed-door meeting in Gaza City, the Palestinians announced that they will let slip the symbolic date of May 4, which will mark the end of the five-year peace process launched by the landmark Oslo accords.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had threatened to use the date--about two weeks before Israeli elections--to announce the formation of an independent state, a move that would have brought fierce Israeli retaliation.
But international pressure, and Israeli politics, forced Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to back down.
The decision concerning statehood will be put off until after a likely June 1 runoff of the Israeli vote. Palestinian officials insisted, however, that they are not giving up on their "eternal right" to independence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already claimed credit for the expected decision, saying his firm, no-compromise handling of the Palestinians had made them think twice about acting unilaterally.
In fact, Arafat and other Palestinian leaders were keenly aware that Netanyahu would use a declaration of statehood as a campaign ploy by claiming to be the only candidate strong enough to counter the Palestinian threat.
"We are trying not to give [Netanyahu] the tools with which he can use us to boost his election chances," said Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official.
And with the declaration delayed, Netanyahu, who is locked in a tough battle for reelection, again sought to score points. He lauded "Israel's extraordinary diplomatic achievement" and said his threats to annex the West Bank had stopped Arafat. He quickly incorporated this theme into his campaign ads, asserting that the Palestinians are eagerly awaiting his defeat so they can have their way with their territory.
"Arafat knows that . . . for as long as I am prime minister, there will be no Palestinian state and no division of Jerusalem," Netanyahu said on local TV.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians would continue to work for statehood at the "suitable" time. The Gaza meeting, which convened the 124-member Palestinian Central Council, also set up a committee to draft a constitution.
In a letter to Arafat earlier this week, the Clinton administration urged Israel and the Palestinians to step up their efforts to reach a final peace settlement within the next year. This helped dissuade the Palestinians from declaring statehood now, but it also effectively extended the peace process well into 2000.
Efforts to enforce peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen for months, largely because of the Israeli elections. Each side heaps blame on the other.
On Thursday, Washington welcomed the Palestinian decision to delay declaring independence.
After spending recent months flying all over the world to seek international backing, Arafat now casts the statehood question not in terms of whether, but when. Declaring statehood, he told the Gaza gathering Tuesday, is no longer necessary because Palestinians are already exercising statehood.
The argument, which bought him the diplomatic and moral cover he needed to defer next week's date, seemed to work for many of the council's members.
"We argued for a while," said Jamal Zakut, who represents a small splinter party. "But finally there was a consensus that there is, in practice, a state, that statehood exists on the ground, and that what we are trying to do is complete the recognition of the state."
Fayed abu Shamallah in Gaza City contributed to this report.