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Palestinian Statehood Will Happen

Middle East: Years of frustration have dulled disappointment about the delay.

May 10, 1999|DAOUD KUTTAB | Daoud Kuttab is the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — When Yasser Arafat stood alongside the Israeli and American leaders in 1993 on the White House lawn, most Palestinians expected that the peace process that began with a handshake would allow them to celebrate statehood. Palestinians were told that before statehood is realized, they would have to wait five years during which negotiations for the permanent status of Palestine would be decided.

But May 4, 1999, the date agreed upon as the end of the interim phase, did not usher in the long-awaited state. Instead, Palestinians have agreed voluntarily to wait in order to give a negotiated settlement a chance.

The Palestinian decision to postpone a unilateral declaration of statehood on their own soil has been welcomed from diverse parties, such as the leaders of Israel and Libya as well as most world powers. The decision has been described as wise, rational, pragmatic. But what does this decision mean for Palestinians?

Reactions vary from those who question the viability of a Palestinian state to those who want a state announced no matter what the consequences are. Those cautioning hesitation point out that Israel has prevented a geographical passageway between Gaza and the West Bank and has filled the West Bank with more than 100 fortified Jewish settlements.

Supporters and opponents of the Palestinian decision to delay declaring statehood conceded that there is no easy answer for the century-old Palestinian problem. They differ on whether to depend on international promises or on hopes that the coming Israeli elections will bring a courageous leader who will sign a genuine peace deal with Palestinians.

Palestinian problems go much farther than the issue of who runs the government in Israel or how much pressure the U.S. or Europe are willing to exert for peace. The Palestinian weakness stems from the huge imbalance of forces. The Arab countries have been solving their own problems and have given Palestinians little more than lip service. Palestinian society itself is split over whether the Palestinian struggle for democracy and human rights should await statehood or whether it needs to be fought for now, even at the expense of the national struggle against the Israelis.

While the balance of forces might not be in favor of Palestinians, many other factors are in their favor. Palestinian moderation and acquiescence to the will of the international community will no doubt be rewarded eventually. The Palestinian demand for the inalienable right of self-determination and statehood can't be denied. The world community, which witnessed the Oslo peace accords and promised to vigorously support Palestinian national aspiration, will no doubt eventually come around. Israelis who are sick of the ongoing conflict hopefully will overcome their baseless fears and vote for change and peace.

While politicians both regionally and internationally argue about the exact mechanism of helping Palestinians realize their national dream of statehood, the majority of Palestinians have become apathetic to the political process. Hopes and dreams have been dashed so many times that for most Palestinians, making ends meet has become the central focus of their lives.

This Palestinian indifference to the political activities must not be understood as a sign that the Palestinian dream has been scrapped. As previous histories of the Middle East have shown, the periods of quiet and tranquillity are often followed by turbulence and instability.

Legally speaking, the Oslo accords which specified that May 4, 1999, be the last day of the permanent status negotiations can't be amended without another bilateral agreement. The hopes and aspirations that Palestinians and Israelis had when Arafat shook hands with the late Yitzhak Rabin have now faded.

While Palestinians are resigned to accepting the decision to postpone declaring statehood, their dream of freedom and independence lives. An independent and democratic state of Palestine will be the focus of Palestinians no matter what happens in the coming Israeli elections or how much effort the Clinton administration exerts after the elections.

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