News Analysis: Palestinian revision of anti-Israel charter bears fruit

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JERUSALEM — Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's visit to the White House this week is proof — if proof is still needed — of the historic significance of the Palestinian National Council's vote to remove the anti-Israel clauses from its charter.

The Israeli opposition parties, upset by the April 24 PNC vote, contended at first that the decision reached at the council session was equivocal.

Along with approving a resolution that in effect canceled the anti-Israel clauses in the charter, the PNC also approved a second resolution calling on a legal committee to draft a new charter "within six months."

This meant, Likud spokesmen argued, that the offensive clauses calling for the destruction of the "Zionist entity" could yet resurface.

Those opposition voices wondered why the council did not vote on a new charter at once.

But Arafat's aides, buoyed by the overwhelming support their leader had received at the council, moved quickly to counter this attack.

They assured reporters that while an earlier draft of the resolution might have seemed ambivalent, the final wording was straightforward and wholehearted.

Moreover, the Palestinian media in Gaza and eastern Jerusalem, briefed by the Palestinian leadership, reported the decision in those terms to the Palestinian population at large.

In addition, the United States and other key foreign countries were officially informed that the charter, or Palestine National Covenant, was no longer a valid document.

At an Israeli Independence Day garden party at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on the day of the PNC vote, Israeli and foreign guests broke into spontaneous applause when Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced the Palestinian council's decision, praising it as the most important change in thinking in this region for 100 years.

President Clinton's invitation to Arafat, sought so long by the Palestinian leader and refused so long by this and previous administrations, put an American stamp of approval on the Palestinians' action.

Behind the scenes, Palestinian officials explained that no new covenant had been drafted because their Israeli counterparts had requested, informally, that this be delayed.

Plainly, Peres' aides preferred, for domestic political reasons, that the PNC make do with a committee and some vague future date rather than adopt a new document now.

A new charter, the aides speculated, would recognize Israel, but would also repeat the Palestinian goal of sovereign statehood with Jerusalem as the capital.

Informed sources say, moreover, that a new covenant will probably never be written.

With the permanent-status negotiations set to start Sunday, at least with a ceremonial opening session, the Palestinian national movement sees itself well on the way to realizing concrete political goals and therefore no longer sees the need for a concrete set of dogma.

Political observers in Israel say the prime minister benefited twice from the PNC's action.

First, the vote removed an explosive timebomb that threatened to shatter Labor's election campaign.

The Likud was preparing a major offensive on the chance that the covenant was not amended. The theme would have been that Arafat, Peres' peace partner, had proved himself unreliable on the very issue that Yitzhak Rabin himself had determined to be the litmus test of the peace process.

Indeed, Rabin had vowed shortly before his assassination to halt the process unless the Palestinians honored their commitment to amend the charter.

Second, the PNC's decision provides Peres and his party with a desperately needed platform from which to launch their effort to win back the support of the pivotal Israeli Arab community.

Deeply disturbed by the civilian casualties and wide-scale suffering in Lebanon caused by Operation Grapes of Wrath — Israel's recent military campaign against the fundamentalist Hezbollah — Arab voters have threatened large-scale defections from Peres.

A poll published Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot found that barely a majority of Israeli Arab voters prepared to say that they would vote for Peres for prime minister.

While only 2.5 percent said they would choose Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu, nearly 30 percent said they would not vote, with an additional 20 percent remaining undecided.

Israeli experts say this survey reflects the anger throughout Israel's Arab community over Israel's military operation in Lebanon.

But they do not see any serious shift in support to Netanyahu. Peres can still win them back, they say, if he finds a way to their hearts.

Without massive support from Israeli Arabs, who account for some 10 percent of the electorate, Peres will be hard put to defeat Netanyahu, in the view of most pundits.

Although he clearly won over some Jewish middle-of-the-road voters by his tough stance in Lebanon, his edge among Jewish voters is marginal.

Further terror incidents — or violent altercations over Hebron, most of which is soon to be handed over to Palestinian rule — could boost Netanyahu's chances.

But a strong turnout of Arab voters on election day, and their return in large numbers to Peres' fold, would give the current prime minister a comfortable lead, according to polls.

Further, while Arafat himself is not a universally popular figure among Israeli Arabs, especially not among the more religious elements of the community, there is widespread gratification over the forward course of the peace process.

Arafat, by succeeding in rescinding the anti-Israel clauses, moved toward several major goals: to end the two-month-old closure Israel had imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the wake of the Hamas suicide bombings; to make sure Israel redeployed its forces in the West Bank town of Hebron, which had been postponed after the bombings; and to contribute toward a Peres victory in Israel's May 29 national elections.

But Arafat's primary goal was the creation of a Palestinian state.

If the covenant's controversial clauses were not amended, Arafat knew that even Israeli supporters of a Palestinian state would have to mute their calls.

A day after the April 24 PNC vote, Arafat began to reap the rewards of his efforts: Israel's ruling Labor Party approved a platform that no longer expressed objection to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Peres must now persuade the Arab community that this is the most important consideration for them, and that Operation Grapes of Wrath was a painful, unavoidable interlude, not a lasting retreat from his vision of a new Middle East.

And he can count on Arafat — as well as on Clinton — to do everything possible to help him in this task.