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Globe-trotting Arafat takes statehood off the map

By Robert Fisk in Beirut, 19 August 2000, The Independent.

How many countries do you have to visit to declare a state? Does an albatross follow Chairman Yasser Arafat to Iran, France, South Africa, China, Russia, Indonesia, Japan?

There were times, after he returned this week, that one was tempted to ask whether Arafat the "terrorist" - the pre-Oslo, pre-"peace" Arafat - would have garnered more support in the Third World than the 1993 "peace" partner of the White House lawn. The West may rest assured. The Russians, the Indonesians - even the Egyptians - have understood the equations of what we call the peace "process". Mr Arafat should not declare a state on 13 September and, almost certainly, will not do so.

"Why does he tour the world to gather support for his 'independent' state before organising the sovereign country which he wishes to rule?" a Palestinian refugee official asked yesterday. "Any normal ruler would seek his people's support for such a step before he announced independence." So - in the destitute, broken world of the Palestinian diaspora - goes the argument. Why did Mr Arafat need to travel to Asia to announce that he might "reassess" his declaration of a state?

In the Palestinian underworld, the answers seem quite clear. Aware that he would not receive recognition for his "independent" state that he promised the Palestinians on his triumphal return from the doomed Camp David talks, Mr Arafat decided to undertake a world tour to prove to his people that the declaration of statehood could not be made on the date he promised. But, rather than admit that his promise was a lie, he preferred to allow the presidents and kings to urge "moderation" and "restraint" - which is what the US and, of course, Israel, wanted.

The details of the Camp David talks remain officially secret, but Mr Arafat's concessions - for which read, capitulation - are obvious. The documents which leaked out showed that he accepted the presence of the Israeli army in the Jordan valley and the right of Israel on Palestinian land to use its army when it feared a danger to the State of Israel.

There would be no Arab army - neither Palestinian nor any other kind - in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli air force would have the right to fly over the skies of "independent" Palestine. There would be Israeli early warning stations on Palestinian territory. On the ground, the Israelis would continue to hold not less than 5 per cent of the land, including the settlements which cut the West Bank off from Jerusalem and which also cut the West Bank in two.

So much for sovereignty. But a state? Gone would be American support and funds. Gone would be any American "leverage" over Israel. Forgotten would be any future negotiations over Jerusalem and the "right of return" of 3 million refugees. Abandoned would be any hope of European support for a state.

The US and Israel believe that a postponement of talks on Jerusalem and the "right of return" is the only way forward. And - aware that he and his acolytes will lose the millions of dollars of US and European support - Mr Arafat is in no mood to commit financial suicide. "We will declare a Palestinian state" became - in Indonesia - a determination to "reassess" the declaration. A visit to Moscow received a cold response from President Vladimir Putin, who urged "further thought" before such a step was taken.

Of course, this is not just about American pressure on its world allies. Even Egypt refused to accept a negation of the Palestinian demand for sovereignty over the Muslim holy landmarks in Jerusalem. Everyone knows that postponement - delay, suspension - of Mr Arafat's demand for a capital in Jerusalem is an incendiary topic. But a deferment of statehood might still be possible.

Thus, Mr Arafat has called for a meeting of the Palestine National Council next month. In the meantime, the Palestinian "minister" for the economy has warned that the Palestinians could not withstand an Israeli economic blockade - one of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's threats - without starvation.

"If Arafat wanted to declare a state, he would have done it and then sought international support," said an official of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine yesterday. "Instead, he travels round the world to see if he'd get support before he consults his own people." And so, all eyes will be upon the meeting of the Council, which must surely urge "moderation". "And then he can say that the democratically elected representatives of his own people have urged restraint. This will mean postponement of statehood. So much for the 13th September deadline."

Cynical, perhaps. But not without reason. With the Americans already calling for asecond summit "peace" conference in November, the Palestinian chairman can insist on a very final last chance for the "peace of the brave"; and postpone the "state" which he has already declared twice before. The Arafat world tour may have looked impressive. It may also have been part of the window-dressing for another Palestinian "concession". Stand by, then, for the postponement of the very last deadline.


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