Jerusalem Turning up the heat on Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told thousands of cheering supporters Sunday in the West Bank that Palestinian statehood could be proclaimed within weeks. "Palestine is ours, ours, ours!" he declared.
Barak, meanwhile, accused Palestinians of deliberately placing obstacles in the path of a Camp David-style summit. A U.S. mediator was working to assess prospects for a three-way gathering of Arafat, Barak and President Clinton in order to try to meet a Sept. 13 deadline for a final peace treaty.
Arafat's speech to a conference of his Fatah faction in the West Bank town of Nablus was full of the type of fiery rhetoric he customarily rolls out for such occasions -- but even so, the timing was sensitive, as the two sides move into what a senior Palestinian official called "the last half-hour" of a push to reach a sweeping accord.
"We have a few weeks left ahead of us, but they are the most important and critical, because at the end of it we will declare statehood," Arafat told a crowd of about 5,000 supporters. Aides said, however, that the timing of a statehood declaration was still being decided.
In a show of defiance that was cheered wildly by the crowd, Arafat scoffed at an assertion earlier this month by Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, Israel's army chief of staff, that Israel would use tanks and helicopter gunships if necessary to quell any outbreak of rioting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"We don't get threatened by tanks and planes -- no one can threaten us," said the 70-year-old Palestinian leader, his voice strong although his hand holding the microphone trembled violently. "Whoever has forgotten, I want to remind him of ... seven years of intefadeh (uprising) and I say we are willing to start again."
Arafat also reasserted Palestinian claims to a capital in Jerusalem, over which Israel insists it will retain sovereignty.
"The state will be established with its capital, Jerusalem, and whoever does not like it can go and drink from the Dead Sea," he said, stabbing a finger for emphasis. "Palestine is ours, ours, ours!"
Arafat's comments drew quick criticism from Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy.
"A peace process can't exist with threats," he told reporters in Jerusalem. "If he chooses to go (declare statehood) ... in a unilateral way, then he directly allows Israel to choose the same method."
Israel has indicated in the past that if Arafat declares statehood unilaterally, it in turn will annex chunks of the West Bank.
Barak complained to his ministers that the Palestinians were trying to "present conditions and demands before allowing a summit to be held," according to the prime minister's office.
Palestinians, though, insisted conditions were not yet ripe.
"We want real progress before such a summit because ... you cannot build bridges on oceans," Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian planning minister, told reporters in the Gaza Strip. "The gaps still remain wide, and we are in the last half-hour."