JERUSALEM — The Palestinian-Israeli peace process took a giant step forward this week, smoothing the way for final status talks on the 1993 peace accord scheduled to begin in May.
Meeting on Palestinian land for the first time in 32 years, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) - the PLO's old parliament in exile - voted Wednesday 504 to 54 to remove clauses from its charter that called for the destruction of Israel.
Israel suspended its ban on some of the most-wanted Palestinian terrorists in order for PNC members to attend the meeting.
"I think, in historical terms, it is even more important than the Palestine Liberation Organization's decision in 1988 to recognize the state of Israel," says Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist at An-Najah University in Nablus. "I think ... the way Israelis perceive Palestinians will be fundamentally different. Many Israelis will now trust the Palestinians, because they have shown that they are serious and want to achieve peace."
The vote is likely to have far-reaching implications for Mideast peace:
*It could help create a better atmosphere for final-status talks, due to begin early next month, on the future status of Jerusalem, the return of Palestinian refugees, the future of about 130,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and the final borders of a Palestinian entity.
*It opens the way for the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from Hebron, the last of seven Palestinian towns in the West Bank due to be handed over to President Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
*It marginalizes the leaders of PLO factions that are opposed to the Israel-PLO peace process.
*It will help Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the May 29 elections, because it pulls the rug from beneath the right-wing Likud opposition that sought to make political capital out of the fact that the PLO had not met its commitments to Israel under the 1993 peace accord.
*It demonstrates that the Israel-PLO accord has acquired a momentum of its own, and that regional events, such as the disastrous Israeli offensive in Lebanon and the civilian massacre at a UN camp there last week, have little bearing on the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
*It brings Palestinians another step closer to their long-cherished goal of a sovereign Palestinian state.
The PNC move, taken by a decisive 75 percent of the members present without debate, is a personal triumph for Mr. Arafat.
Western diplomats were surprised by the extent of Arafat's majority. The Palestinian National Council includes several factions of the PLO, including militant factions still opposed to the Israel-PLO accord.
The PNC decision was welcomed by Prime Minister Peres, who had threatened to freeze the Israel-PLO accord unless Arafat removed the clauses from the PLO charter calling for Israel's destruction.
"Look at the difficulties and sacrifices we had to endure to get this change," Mr. Peres said.
But the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, responsible for the recent spate of suicide bombings in Israel, vowed that it would remain faithful to the old covenant and continue its hostilities, describing the PNC decision as a "humiliating concession" to the Israelis.
"It is true that the decision signals the demise of the PNC, because it has effectively scrapped its founding document," says Mark Heller, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University.
"But I don't necessarily think it means the end of the line that the PLO once represented, because the continuation of this is ensured by Hamas," he adds. "Hamas is what the PLO was 20 years ago with a religious coloration ... so the struggle between two world views is not definitely over."