Arafat Comes Through

IT"S far from clear what changes in the Palestinian national charter may ultimately mean for peace in the Middle East. But it's very clear that if Yasser Arafat hadn't been able to bring his compatriots to make those changes, the current peace process would likely have reached a dead end.

That process is under extraordinary strains. This was true even before Israel's costly offensive against Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were already cut off from jobs and income in Israel, and Israeli security forces remained ensconced in places, like Hebron, they had been scheduled to leave. The threat of more suicide bombings by Hamas fanatics, together with Prime Minister Shimon Peres's need to maintain a tough stance in the run-up to the May 29 vote in Israel, meant these conditions were, for now, semi-permanent.

Hence it's a testament to Mr. Arafat's enduring leadership that he was able to persuade the Palestinian National Council, his people's "parliament in exile," to rid its charter of references to the destruction of Israel. Arafat engineered their deletion with some of the least-flexible, most-radical Palestinian elements present.

This step, written into the Oslo peace process, now opens the door to final negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians - negotiations that should include such crucial issues as the future of East Jerusalem and the consolidation of Palestinian rule in the West Bank.

Of course, there's the matter of an Israeli election first. And in the background lurk the dark motives of extremists on both sides. As throughout this process, Arafat moved ahead with the charter changes with little in the way of assurances. He has no guarantee that Israel will allow anything like the bona fide state he desires. But he rightly sees the process as his people's best hope for a better future.

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