Palestinians' tough call: end to anti-Israel words

As Clinton prepares to address the Gaza meeting Dec. 14, Palestinians differ on altering a founding charter seeking Israel's demise.

When Fayez Abu Rahme and some two dozen other Palestinians drafted the Palestine National Covenant in 1964, it expressed the national aspirations of a stateless people.

It also expressed intent to destroy Israel by force and denounced Zionism, a movement of Jewish national aspirations.

That was then, says Mr. Abu Rahme, and this is now. When President Clinton comes to speak at Abu Rahme's hometown on Monday, Abu Rahme says he will be preaching to the converted.

"The charter was meant to steer things when the Palestinians were at war, and they are not considered to be at war now, so we have no need for this document," says Abu Rahme.

But debate is far from over. The charter has long been a sticking point in the peace process, and the meeting is a crucial component of the latest peace agreement in which Israel is supposed to hand over more land to the Palestinians. But questions remain on what constitute official changes in the charter and whether a vote will be taken on them.

To Abu Rahme, a former attorney general of the Palestinian Authority who now serves as a legal adviser to Yasser Arafat, the covenant should be viewed through the lens of history.

"It was 1964, when the Palestinians had no say in things. They were neglected and they were desperate to prove that they exist, so they reverted to extremism and fighting," says Abu Rahme. "Now the climate has changed," he says.

But Palestinians are divided among those who agree with Abu Rahme - those who say the charter was officially amended 2-1/2 years ago - and those who say Israel and the United States have no right to force Palestinians to tinker with the words of their founding fathers.

An affront to Israelis

Those words, though, continue to be an affront to Israelis who worry that Palestinians will always want more and more land, including the land Israel was founded on in 1948. Officials from the former, left-wing Labor government heralded the charter's amendment after a 1996 meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC). But hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that the charter was never legally changed.

Still, Mr. Netanyahu seems to have grown to accept the fact that Monday's meeting with Clinton will not include an actual vote. Rather, says a senior government official, the meeting will be a symbolic show of support. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported, though, that Netanyahu wants to see the text of the PNC vote.

The Palestine National Covenant was written in 1964, when 422 delegates to the first PNC met in Jerusalem. The meeting was convened following a decision of the Arab League, and consequently, the resulting document had pan-Arab undertones that treated the Palestinian problem as one to be solved by the entire Arab world.

At the same meeting, the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed, though it was not until five years later that Mr. Arafat and the Fatah party took control of the PLO.

In 1968, reflecting bitter disappointment among Palestinians toward the Arab states' tremendous losses to Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, Palestinian leaders rewrote the covenant. They stressed indigenous Palestinian efforts to wage a national struggle against Israel and renamed it the Palestine National Charter.

But pragmatism began to set in as the PLO gained world condemnation for the acts of terrorism it wrought against targets ranging from Israeli Olympic athletes to random passengers on international planes and ships. At a PNC meeting in 1988, the PLO said it recognized Israel's right to exist but also declared an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Null and void, or war cry?

When the PLO and Israel stunned the world in 1993 by announcing a secret reconciliation deal had been brokered in Oslo, Norway, Arafat said that the 1988 session - as well as the Oslo accord itself - was proof that the charter's anti-Israel articles were null and void.

But to Israelis, the charter remained a threatening war cry that could still encourage acts of terrorism. As they saw it, PLO-sanctioned bloodshed had continued even after the 1988 meeting.

In the September 1993 "Declaration of Principles" and in the subsequent accords, Arafat promised former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres that he would formally amend the charter. Meeting in April 1996, the PNC in Gaza emerged with the announcement that the charter had been changed.

But Israeli researchers and politicians who have made a career of studying the internal structure of the PLO cried foul. Exactly which of the 33 articles had been changed? Israeli critics say no one could answer.

One of the academics who made a strong indictment of the nebulous state of the Palestinian charter was Yehoshua Porat, a professor of Middle East history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"The importance is that it's an indication of bad will," says Dr. Porat. "You cannot [make peace] with an organization that is committed to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of Jews."

To 'reaffirm support'

Though Clinton will be addressing an assembly of Palestinians on Monday to encourage them to amend the charter, the debate is far from over.

The Wye accord, signed in October, says that at this meeting Palestinian officials will "reaffirm their support for the peace process" as well as a Jan. 22 letter from Arafat to Clinton concerning the charter. However, the Wye agreement, signed in October, does not mention a vote per se.

Sticking to the text, the Clinton administration has backed the Palestinian view and said that while they must eventually see a properly amended charter, a vote need not be taken at the Dec. 14 meeting at the Shawa Center.

It will, at any rate, not be a special session of the PNC, but a "festival," as Palestinian minister Nabil Shaath put it, to include Palestinian legislative council members, ministers, PLO executive committee members, and a hodgepodge of other Palestinian representatives.

Subject to still further discussion is how a real change in the charter would affect Arafat. There are reports that a petition expressing opposition to the charter change will be distributed on the day of Clinton's visit, and rejectionist factions of the PLO, based in neighboring Arab countries, will boycott the vote, as they did in 1996.

But any criticism of Arafat is likely to be dwarfed by the kudos he'll receive for securing the first-ever visit of an American president to autonomous Palestinian territory.

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