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Palestinians Delay Proclamation Of Statehood Due to Elections

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- 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 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, Norway, accords.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had threatened to use the date -- about two weeks before scheduled Israeli elections -- to announce the formation of an independent state, a move that would have prompted 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 on 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 re-election, again sought win support. He lauded “Israel’s extraordinary diplomatic achievement,” and said his threats to annex the West Bank had stopped Arafat.