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Palestinians agree to delay statehood Governing council to meet again Nov. 15 to consider issue
MSNBC staff and wire reports GAZA, Gaza Strip, Sept. 10
The Palestinian mini-parliament agreed Sunday to delay a declaration of an independent Palestinian state to allow more time to reach a peace deal with Israel. After a two-day meeting, the Palestinian Central Council decided to meet again on Nov. 15 to reconsider the issue.
PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT Yasser Arafat had said he held the right to declare a state by Wednesday, the target date Israel and the Palestinians agreed to for completing a peace treaty. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had warned that any unilateral action would negate peace efforts and could lead to violence.
The Palestinian Central Councils decision to delay came after two days of long-awaited debate, although even as the group convened it was clear that the current deadline would be put off. PCC chairman Salim Zanoun said the body now expects a progress report on statehood by Nov. 15, the 12th anniversary of a symbolic declaration of statehood-in-exile.
The council made clear that the postponement was not a long-term delay, but was designed to provide the faltering peace talks with breathing space. The delay does not mean that Israel is free from implementing its obligations under previous agreements, said the statement, read aloud by Zanoun.
In New York, where Barak is traveling, his spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky, called the move a positive step.
We believe it is a result of the position of the international community which opposes unilateral steps that can only hurt the peace process, Baltiansky said.
World leaders have warned Arafat that a unilateral declaration would not only harm the delicate peace process but also could provoke violent conflict with Israel, which has threatened counter-measures in such an event.
White House National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley, noting the administration had anticipated Sunday's decision. Its consistent with the commitment that the parties made in New York that they wanted to stay at this, Crowley said, referring to meetings Arafat and Barak held with President Clinton during a United Nations summit last week.
We still recognize that there is a difficult road ahead but they have indicated that there may be follow-up discussion to New York as early as this week, Crowley added. So we will continue to look for ways to be supportive.
SPEAKERS HAD BACKED DELAY
Al-Zanoun said that all speakers had called for a postponement. "All speakers agreed that there would be a delay which would not go beyond the end of the year. I think this is what will happen," he said. The statehood declaration in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Arab areas seized by Israel in the 1967 war, has been Arafat's lifelong dream. But delegates said he had left the way open for delaying the declaration in a speech to the PCC on Saturday when he also said that negotiations with Israel would resume on Monday.
Some Palestinian groups, such as the militant Islamic Hamas movement, oppose a statehood declaration unless the Palestinians have sovereignty over Jerusalem. Others staged protests on Saturday to demand an immediate declaration.
Arafat's grip on power is widely considered strong enough for him to withstand a delay over the declaration but he would risk his own credibility if he extended the delay for too long.
A postponement would give peace another chance, although expectations are not high after Arafat and Barak failed to reach agreement at a summit with Clinton at the Camp David retreat near Washington in July.
NEXT WEEK'S TALKS TO BE DECISIVE
Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Arafat, said the negotiations due to start on Monday would be "decisive," but Israeli officials said there was no reason to raise expectations unduly.
"If today they will decide not to make a unilateral declaration, we will see this as signaling the desire truly to resolve the process in a positive way, although I don't see that the chance [of a final peace being reached] is all that great," Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Army Radio.
Jerusalem is thought to be the main sticking point at talks. Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in 1967, annexed it in a move not recognized internationally and regards all of the city as its "united and eternal" capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their planned independent state.
On Saturday, Arafat hinted at a new approach to the negotiations if only semantically by proposing "Islamic sovereignty" over Jerusalem's Islamic shrines, a London-based Arabic paper reported. Al-Haram al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary") in the old walled city of Jerusalem contains Islam's third holiest shrine, but is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, because it is where they believe the first and second biblical temples stood.
Both sides say they could not accept the sovereign control of the other over the site, which Israel allowed to continue under the administration of Palestinian religious authorities since it seized Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.
NBC's Tom Aspell in Tel Aviv,The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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