Church council's new policy increases support for Palestinians and PLO

In a revision of basic policy on the Middle East, the National Council of Churches (NCC) has given more explicit support to Palestians and the PLO. Israel must recognize the right of the Palestinians to "a sovereign" and accept the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) as "a participant" in peace negotiations, the NCC declared in a policy statement.

The document will serve as a basis for future NCC programs and comment related to the Middle East. It says that the status of Jerusalem should remain a subject for future negotiations. And in an implied reference to Israel's West Bank policies, it says "unilateral actions" on settlements and land and water use diminish the prospects for peace.

Written to replace a 1969 statement that mentioned a "need" of Palestinians for "a home that is acceptable to them" -- but not the right to a state or a role for the PLO -- the new document emerged as the product of an extraordinary concentrated and comprehensive review by the NCC.

It received its final reading on the first day of the NCC's governing board meeting (Nov. 6-8). Amendments were proposed, but no substantial changes were approved and the statement was adopted unanimously.

The NCC includes 32 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches with 40 million members. Though its public influence remains a matter of debate, Jewish leaders were deeply disturbed to see this change in policy in such a widely representative body.

Several officials of Jewish organizations attended the governing board meeting to talk with members and the press and to hear the debate. After the final vote, they distributed statements deploring the NCC action, particularly the references to the PLO.

But the NCC also disappointed PLO supporters by refusing to characterize that organization as "the legitimate" representative of the Palestinians, preferring to describe it more neutrally as "the only organized voice" of Palestinians "at this time."

The policy statement also balanced support for Palestinian rights with an affirmation absent from its 1969 document, of the right of Israel to exist "as a Jewish state." An effort to substitute "sovereign" for "Jewish" at that point was narrowly defeated.

The crucial passage therefore remained:

"Steps toward peace which would make possible direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must include official action by the Palestine National Council, the deliberative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization , including either an amendment of the Palestine National Covenant of 1968 or an unambiguous statement recognizing Israel as a sovereign state and its right to continue as a Jewish state. At the same time, Israel must officially declare its recognition of the right of Palestinians to self-determination, including the option of a sovereign state apart from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and of its acceptance of the Palestine Liberation Organization as a participant in the peace negotiations."

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