Arafat Caught in Middle Of Rift Over PLO Charter

UNDER pressure from Israel to annul provisions of the Palestinian charter, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat faces resistance from a new alliance between some of his top aides and opposition group leaders.

Israel and the PLO initialed a new accord on Wednesday to transfer health and other civil responsibilities to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

But Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Mr. Arafat, in a brief visit to Gaza last Friday, that modifying the charter is a prerequisite for full implementation of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and for speeding up international funding to the self-rule areas of Gaza and Jericho.

Arafat had committed himself - in a September 1993 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as part of the peace pact -

to annul the provisions of the charter that reject Israel and assert Palestinian claim to all of Palestine.

And he announced after last week's meeting with Mr. Peres that he had asked the Israelis to allow all Palestinian National Council (PNC) members - the parliament in exile - to travel to Gaza to meet on this issue.

But a statement distributed in Amman this week challenges Arafat's authority to make such a commitment and contests his ability to convene the PNC in exile to amend the charter.

``Mr. Arafat does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the PLO or to commit it to anything. There is no text of any Palestinian legislation that gives Mr. Arafat the authority to issue such commitments,'' says the statement signed by 171 prominent Palestinians, including 80 PNC members.

Six out of 14 of Arafat's colleagues in the leadership of Fatah, his mainstream PLO group, have either joined or publicly backed the widening campaign to prevent the annulment.

Those who oppose the action argue that the PLO should first secure Israeli recognition of the Palestinians' right to self-determination and an independent Palestine.

According to ``mutual recognition'' letters exchanged last year, Israel recognized the PLO but stopped short of accepting Palestinian independence.

Fatah leaders have promised Palestinian opposition groups they would not allow the modification of the charter as long as Israel refused to accept Palestinian independence, Palestinian sources say.

Two cofounders of the Fatah movement, Farouk Kaddoumi, who is also head of the PLO foreign department, and Hani al-Hassan, are joining with leftist Palestinian groups in the diaspora and in the occupied territories to obstruct what they view as further concessions.

Four leading Fatah Central Committee members are also involved in the campaign.

PLO leaders have indicated that there could be no meeting of the PNC before a redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank and the staging of Palestinian elections to complete the implementation of the autonomy deal.

Palestinian officials say that Mr. Peres told Arafat last week that the other phases of expanding Palestinian self-rule - including redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank, the deployment of Palestinian police, and Palestinian national elections - hinged on the annulment.

Although Arafat has repeated his commitment to modify the charter, he is now unlikely, unless further pressured by Israel, to call for a PNC meeting in Gaza at this stage.

PLO officials and analysts say that Arafat partly fears that the convening of the 500-member PNC could end up in a challenge to his legitimacy as the Palestinian leader, as disillusionment about the peace deal with Israel widens among Palestinians.

The Palestinian agreement with Israel has not been ratified by the PNC, and this week's Amman declaration, based on a legal study by prominent lawyer Ibrahim Bakr, claimed that all agreements that Arafat has made with Israel are nonbinding.

If pressed, however, Arafat might resort to changing the PNC structure - to include a bigger percentage of representatives from the West Bank and Gaza to outweigh the opposition and secure the two-thirds quorum required to make changes in the charter.

Arafat has the right to appoint 185 new members to the PNC - slots which have always been allocated for the occupied territories but have never been named publicly for fear of Israeli persecution.

Efforts to change the Palestinian charter are expected to be resisted by many of the supporters of the peace agreement with Israel.

Arafat has argued that the Palestinian charter, which commits the Palestinians to a struggle against Israel, has already been outdated by the PNC's recognition of the state of Israel in 1988.

But the 1988 ``independence declaration'' was based on United Nations Resolution 181 of 1947, which called for the establishment of Jewish and Arab states in the land of Palestine - while the agreement between Israel and the PLO ignored the resolution by which the state of Israel gained international recognition.

``Without Israeli recognition of Palestinian independence, there will be no amendments of the charter,'' Kaddoumi says.

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