JERUSALEM - Palestinian leaders, yielding to Western pressure and Israeli threats, decided yesterday to delay by at least two months the formal declaration of Palestinian statehood.
The decision, which was expected, allows more time for deadlocked Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to attempt to reach a final peace agreement. It was announced after a two-day meeting in Gaza City of the 129-member Palestinian Central Council, the top policy-making body.
Until yesterday, Palestinians had reserved the right to declare an independent state any time after Wednesday, the day when an agreed period for reaching a peace agreement expires. They had argued that they would no longer be bound by the constraints of the peace process and would be free to act on their own.
In New York, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak hinted that he would accept less than full sovereignty over the Temple Mount, a 32-acre sacred compound in Jerusalem's Old City. The fate of the site, which Muslims call Haram al Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, is the key stumbling block to a peace agreement.
The United States and European countries had urged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to postpone the declaration, saying it should come as part of a negotiated agreement with Israel. Otherwise, they feared, it would doom the peace process.
A formal declaration would have been an inspiring symbol to the Palestinian people, but of little practical value. Israel occupies substantial parts of the West Bank and controls the external borders of the West Bank and Gaza.
The unilateral move would also have been dangerous. Barak had threatened to annex parts of the West Bank if the Palestinians went ahead and declared statehood.
If Palestinians tried to use police or armed youth movements to assert sovereignty over disputed territory, the stage would be set for violent clashes. Israel was prepared to use substantial force to contain them. In a statement issued last night, the PCC said, "The Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership remain committed to the choice of peace as a strategic choice in order to achieve justice and comprehensive peace and in order to fulfill the goals of the Palestinian people of self-determination."
It said preparations for statehood would be made in the coming weeks. These include laying the groundwork for presidential and legislative elections, drafting a constitution and preparing to seek U.N. membership.
"The PCC has decided from this day to take steps, sovereignty steps, by November 15," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a senior aide to Arafat.'The PCC will meet before November 15 to decide on the declaration," he said.
No progress has been made in the peace process since July, when President Clinton's efforts to broker a deal between Barak and Arafat at Camp David collapsed over the question of sovereignty in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Clinton met with both men last week in New York and spoke again with Barak on Saturday, but gave no hint of a breakthrough.
Palestinian officials say lower-level negotiations will begin again this week and continue for about a month.
Arafat, speaking to the PCC in a closed meeting Saturday night, told the group to be prepared for the worst, according to Palestinian media accounts.
"The situation is very difficult, and the battle is fierce; the gap between the two positions is still there and wide. We must be prepared for the worst. Our people can start all over again," according to a translation provided by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
The United States welcomed the PCC decision. "It's consistent with the commitment that the parties made in New York that they wanted to stay at this," said P. J. Crowley, spokesman for the National Security Council.
"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 said. "So we will continue to look for ways to be supportive."
Barak spokesman Gadi Baltiansky called the decision "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.
The new date marks the anniversary of the first Palestinian declaration of statehood in 1988, when the Palestinian leadership was in exile.
The delay puts off the declaration until after the U.S. elections and the return in late October of the Israeli parliament, which may bring down Barak's government.