"We have prevented a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proudly announced. That was on May 4, 1999, the deadline set by the Oslo Accords for the end of the interim period and the beginning of the final peace agreement.
The negotiations bogged down. The timetable was extended and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat threatened to declare an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu, who was being challenged by Ehud Barak for the premiership, conducted a successful diplomatic effort against the Palestinian declaration. Arafat caved, but not before declaring that "the Palestinian state exists and will be declared on Palestinian soil whether they like it or not."
There is consistency in the Middle East. Netanyahu has returned to power after a decade and is again fighting a Palestinian threat to declare statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The response is similar, too. The first time around Israel threatened that such a move would result in the cancellation of existing agreements, and yesterday Netanyahu spoke of the "unraveling" of agreements if the Palestinians made good on their threat and declared a Palestinian state. He hinted that a unilateral Palestinian move would be met by a unilateral response by Israel. Israeli cabinet ministers threatened that Israel would annex portions of the West Bank.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak heard a similar threat when he was prime minister after failed talks at Camp David and the eruption of the second intifada in the autumn of 2000. He responded with a plan for unilateral separation that included the threat to gradually annex settlement blocs to Israel around Ma'aleh Adumim, Ariel and Gush Etzion. Ariel Sharon, who was then running against Barak for prime minister, ultimately carried out the decisive move of setting the route of the security fence, in advance of a future annexation of settlement blocs.
It appears that this time, too, the Palestinian threat reflects frustration more than a practical plan, and the Israeli response reflects fear of international pressure, not a decision to annex territory. From Israel's standpoint, it's good that the Palestinians are threatening to declare their state in accordance with the 1967 borders, meaning that they would put the vision of "two states for two peoples" into practice.
Just a few weeks ago, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat threatened Israel with a one-state solution, forgoing the partitioning of the country in favor of an annexation of the territories into Israel and the demand for civil rights for the Palestinians. For Israel, it's easier to contend with a demand for partition than Palestinian representation in the Knesset.
The Obama administration, which has so far failed to restart peace negotiations, will try to leverage the Palestinian threat and extract concessions from Netanyahu. It's difficult, however, to believe that the United States, even under President Barack Obama, would abandon the peace process and back a unilateral declaration of the establishment of a Palestinian state.
If Netanyahu acts correctly, he will again be able to be proud of his ability to foil Palestinian declarations of statehood, just as he did during his first term as prime minister.
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