Palestine Central Council Keeps Options Open

The Palestine Central Council met in Gaza to consider the implications of 4 May 1999, the end of the five-year transitional period agreed upon in the existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Discussions and debates among the members of the Council, which is the highest decision-making body in the absence of the Palestine National Council (PNC), were held from 27 to 29 April 1999. At that time, various options available to the Palestinian side were equally considered.

President Yasser Arafat provided a detailed report on the contacts and consultations the Palestinian leadership conducted on this matter with a vast number of Arab and other countries, including the visits made by the President to the capitals of those nations.

The discussions led to the adoption of a consensus position, basically postponing a decision by the Council, which remains in session and which will reconvene during the month of June. The decision was not easy, given the legal, political and practical ramifications of the situation after the 4th of May. Of further serious consideration was the sensitive situation on the ground, as well as the eagerness of the right wing Israeli government to go on the offensive against the Palestinian side prior to Israeli elections. A decisive element was the advice offered by the overwhelming majority of brotherly and friendly States to postpone actions reaffirming Palestinian independence.

In this connection, the European Union (EU) issued the Berlin statement following its recent summit, which essentially supported the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the option of a State, and expressed readiness to consider recognition of the State at a later stage, but also indicated the need for conclusion of negotiations between the parties within 12 months. In the same direction came a letter from President Clinton, which was addressed to President Arafat a few days before the meeting. That letter and its content represented an important development, moving the American position to a new level. The above positions were viewed by the Council as new political facts important for the completion of international recognition of the Palestinian State.

While it is true that the crux of the Council’s position was postponement, there were other important elements as well. The statement of the Council (see text on our web site under the PLO section) affirmed that the Palestinian State already exists on the basis of the natural rights of the Palestinian people, General Assembly resolution 181 (II) of 1947, and the Declaration of Independence by the PNC in 1988. The Council also requested the Executive Committee to take the necessary measures to complete and fortify the elements and institutions of the State, including the establishment of a committee for the drafting of the Constitution of Palestine. While those two points do not represent measures with immediate results, there is no doubt that they represent clear solidification of the Palestinian position. Another positive development during the meeting, from a Palestinian point of view, was the resumption of participation in the Council by the Democratic Front. In addition, the attendance of a Hamas delegation, headed by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as well the Islamic Jihad, indicated improvement in Palestinian national unity.

The decision of the Central Council was broadly praised internationally. There has, however, been a lot of unease among the Palestinians, which requires serious follow-up until the next meeting of the Council. Soon, we must try to translate the promises and assurances given to the Palestinian side by many important players into clearer and binding frames for all the parties.