Salim Zanoun, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Council, told Voice of Palestine radio on Sunday that his organization will convene Feb. 2 to discuss the statehood issue. If it decides in favor of the idea, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would be authorized to declare statehood the same day, although he could delay a declaration.
Palestinian officials have said they reserve the right to declare statehood if they suspect Israel of reneging on its obligations in the ongoing peace talks. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has not objected to Palestinian statehood, but Israeli opponents to the peace process would likely use a unilateral statehood declaration as proof that Barak has lost control of the negotiations.
Palestinians are concerned that Barak's peace talks with Syria have distracted him from his commitment to outline a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians by Feb. 13. Palestinian officials say Israeli sluggishness has made it impossible to meet that target date.
At the same time, a government official said Syria has not taken a decision yet on a date for the next round of talks with Israel, originally scheduled to start in the United States on Wednesday.
"We are now making the necessary evaluation and assessment of the previous talks before taking a decision on a date for the new round," the official told Reuters.
|The Israel-Syria Talks|
"We don't know how we're going to benefit," said cabinet minister Chaim Ramon, "and this is our problem."
Palestinians also are upset that Barak has delayed a scheduled withdrawal from 6.1 percent of the West Bank. The withdrawal had been scheduled for Thursday, but Barak delayed it two weeks because he is traveling to the United States this week for the next round of peace talks with the Syrians.
Baratold cabinet ministers Sunday that peace talks with the Palestinians should proceed with as little interruption as possible but that it was in Israel's legal right to delay land handovers by up to three weeks, Israel radio reported. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he informed his counterpart, Israeli negotiator Oded Eran, that the Israeli decision was "unacceptable."
"In making this decision the (Israeli) government has directed a blow to any attempt to revive the trust between the sides," Erekat said.
The new delay comes on the heels of a withdrawal that had been delayed seven weeks because of a dispute over where it should take place. That same issue is likely to hinder the next withdrawal beyond Barak's two-week delay. Palestinians want a say in drawing up withdrawal maps, but Israel says the peace accords designate it as the sole authority in deciding which land to include in withdrawals.
Part of the dispute stems from the long-running fight over possession of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as a capital.
Palestinians hope to gain control of the city's suburbs. Israel insists that any changes in control over territory near the city should be decided in the final phase of peace talks between the sides.
Israeli officials apparently are hoping for a solution in which Palestinians would accept the West Bank suburbs as a capital instead of the eastern part of Jerusalem. Erekat dismissed such suggestions.
"Any talk about an alternative capital for the Palestinian state is totally rejected by all Palestinians," he said.
Israel captured east Jerusalem in 1967, declaring the sector part of its capital. Like his predecessors, Barak insists the city will not be divided again.
At stake in the talks with Syria is another 1967 prize, the Golan Heights. Reports Berger, Israel wants in return for the Heights normalization of relations, open borders, and security guarantees - and it wants them when and if talks resume Wednesday.
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