U.S., Jewish officials hail Palestinian charter change

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. and Jewish officials are giving a hearty thumbs up to the Palestine National Council's decision this week to amend the portions of its charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

Their enthusiasm echoed that of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who hailed the vote, saying that "maybe ideologically it is the most important change in the last 100 years."

During a closed-door session in Gaza Wednesday night, as Israel concluded its 48th Independence Day celebrations, the PNC ended worldwide uncertainty about the critical vote's outcome.

Knowing the peace process was at stake, Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat had urged the so-called Palestinian parliament-in-exile to change the covenant, as called for under the peace accords with Israel.

Councilmembers, including some extreme terrorists whom Israel had allowed into Gaza to participate in the vote, supported Arafat's appeal.

The vote was 504 in favor, 54 against and 14 abstentions. That exceeded the two-thirds majority of the 669 PNC members needed to change the 1964 covenant.

Arafat reportedly appointed 98 people to the PNC on Tuesday, prompting accusations from hardline opponents that he was stacking the vote in his favor.

"Make up your minds," Arafat told recalcitrant PNC members Tuesday. "Are we going to have a Palestinian dream or not? Are we going to have a Palestinian state or not?"

In Washington, D.C., some Jewish officials learned of the news directly from President Clinton.

"They did it," Clinton told American Jewish leaders.

Flashing the thumbs-up sign to a small group of Jewish organizational leaders attending the signing ceremony, Clinton shared a cable on the decision that had just been handed to him by his national security adviser, Anthony Lake.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said this "incredible achievement is another milestone in the peace process."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, responded, "Good news. We waited three years to have Arafat fulfill his promise to Rabin and he did."

Foxman said that now is the time for the Palestinians to translate their acceptance of Israel from "words into deeds" and stop terrorism.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has closely monitored the Palestine Liberation Organization's actions since the signing of its accords with Israel, said, "I am delighted to see that this has been done."

The PNC vote came amid sharp Palestinian criticisms of Israel for its military actions in Lebanon, as well as longstanding protests against Israel's prolonged closure of the West Bank and Gaza, imposed after the first of four Hamas suicide bombings against Israel in late February and early March.

The vote came in the wake of repeated Israeli warnings that failure to amend the covenant would halt the peace process.

The council's vote was also crucial for Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who faces next month's elections. A vote against amending the charter would have undermined Peres' position, fueling his right-wing opponents who say the Palestinian peace track has failed.

The PNC reportedly voted on a written text that read: "The Palestine National Council decides to amend the Palestinian National Charter by canceling clauses which contradict the letters exchanged between the PLO and the Israeli government."

Arafat and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had exchanged letters of mutual recognition as part of the 1993 peace accord.

In its decision, the PNC did not adopt a new covenant, but appointed a legal committee to draw one up. The draft of a new covenant is not expected to be brought before the PNC before the May 29 Israeli elections, Israel Radio reported.

The PNC vote came amid recent reports that implementation of the interim-phase accord, on hold since the suicide bombings, would resume, and that preparations were under way for the Israeli troop redeployment from parts of Hebron.

Hebron is the seventh and final Palestinian population center that is to be handed over to Palestinian self-rule under the interim accord.

Meanwhile, members of Congress are calling on both Arafat and Israeli authorities to arrest and extradite to the United States the mastermind of the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking.

Mohammed Abbas, known as Abul Abbas, was in Gaza this week for the PNC vote. An Italian court convicted him in absentia of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled American Jew aboard the cruise ship.

"The killing of American citizens by known terrorists cannot go unpunished," Rep. Mike Forbes (R-N.Y.) said at a Manhattan news conference Tuesday. Forbes, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) and the Zionist Organization of America joined in calling for Abbas' apprehension.

A Justice Department spokesperson said this week that the United States would not request Abbas' extradition.

In Gaza this week, Abbas told the Washington Post that Klinghoffer "was not killed because he was an American or a Jew. He was killed because he made a lot of fuss." He added that the death was "a mistake, and we do not support it."