How Must PLO Renounce Its Charter?

As part of the package currently under negotiation to revive the Middle East peace process, the Palestinian Executive Committee, according to press reports, would "reconfirm changes in the Palestinian Covenant by cancelling all clauses calling for Israel's destruction."

That may not be enough to satisfy many Israelis - particularly conservatives - who demand that the larger body, the 600 member Palestine National Congress (PNC), officially renounce the Palestinian National Charter approved by that body in 1968. Is such an action essential to the peace process?

From an Israeli standpoint, the charter is a harsh and unacceptable document. In its 33 articles, it defines the boundaries of the Palestinian homeland as those of the British mandate, emphasizes the link between the homeland and Palestinian identity and dignity, refers to Israel as "the instrument of the Zionist movement" and a threat to peace, calls for the liberation of Palestine through armed struggle, and urges Arab states to support that effort. The document states that Jews who resided in Palestine before "the Zionist invasion" would be "considered Palestinians," but all others would be considered citizens of the countries from which they came - and to which they presumably would return.

Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders have taken the position that the question of the charter was made moot by Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a state in the region, by UN resolutions 242 and 338, and by Mr. Arafat's signature on the Declaration of Principles signed with the Israelis at Oslo in 1993.

Arafat is obviously reluctant to convene the full PNC. Many in that body represent Palestinians abroad and in refugee camps who oppose the peace process. Arafat's efforts to maintain a degree of cohesion among Palestinian factions could suffer if he were to press the issue.

In 1994, Arafat promised to convene the PNC to consider the repeal of the charter. He did so in April of 1996, but claimed the timing for changes in the charter was poor because Gaza was in the seventh week of Israeli-imposed work restrictions. He subsequently wrote Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres stating that the PNC had decided "that the Palestine National Charter is hereby amended by canceling the provisions that are contrary to the letters exchanged between the PLO and the government of Israel on 9/10 September 1993." More recently, in January 1998, Arafat said he was willing to convene "key leaders" of the PLO to affirm that all sections of the PLO Charter calling for Israel's destruction are null and void.

For many Israelis and their supporters in the US, these steps haven't been enough. They consider that Arab decisions against the Partition Plan in 1947 and their defeats in four wars erase claims to the territory that now constitutes Israel.

But gestures don't suppress emotions and erase memories or prevent their passage from one generation to another. What actually happened in 1948 remains a matter of deep dispute - whether Palestinians were driven from their homes or left of their own accord. But Arab residents of former Palestine consider they were victims of an early form of "ethnic cleansing." Even some Israelis are acknowledging wrongs to the Arabs. Repeal of the Palestinian National Charter wouldn't remove the deep Palestinian feelings of humiliation and loss. Dreams of returning to lost villages and farms and hatred against the occupier would remain, even if obscured by an acceptance of Israel's reality.

The question then arises whether forcing symbolic gestures renouncing historic claims is wise or necessary if such renunciation stands in the way of a peace agreement. Israelis would object strenuously to an Arab demand that Jews set aside in a formal way claims to Judea and Samaria - even if the creation of a Palestinian state did so in reality.

Yasser Arafat may find a way to satisfy the Israelis on the charter question. But, in the last analysis, only through a workable peace between Israelis and Palestinians will unrealistic dreams on both sides begin to fade.

* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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