What tests must Yasser pass to get respect of Israel, U.S.

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Ever since Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed their peace accords, critics of Israel's government have not stopped trying to prove that Yasser Arafat's commitment to peace is a dangerous mirage.

There has been a veritable anti-Arafat cottage industry in Israel and the United States. Scores of people pore over the Palestinian leader's speeches and triumphantly uncover references to a "jihad [holy war]." They detail all sorts of anti-terrorist measures Arafat has supposedly failed to take — not because they want him to change in order for the peace process to succeed, but because they want to scuttle that process and all realistic efforts to reach Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement.

So it is no surprise that when Arafat persuaded the Palestinian National Council (PNC) to cancel militaristic clauses in its covenant calling for Israel's destruction, even this historic achievement didn't persuade professional Arafat-bashers that he should be accepted — warts and all — as a legitimate negotiating partner.

Amending the covenant was one of Shimon Peres' prerequisites for final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. These talks have just begun in Taba, Egypt.

Yet rather than applaud the PNC's April 24 vote to change the covenant and the resultant progress towards peace, in the last three weeks Peres' critics have been trumpeting imaginative, legalistic excuses to dismiss the vote's significance.

The Palestinians voted to "amend the National Covenant by canceling the articles which contradict the letters exchanged between the PLO and the government of Israel."

It doesn't take an international lawyer to understand which parts of the old covenant "contradict" the Israeli-Palestinian accords. Any high school student could examine the faded, '60s-style PLO jargon calling for armed struggle and Israel's destruction and see that it clearly contradicts the agreements of the '90s, which explicitly reject violence and spell out arrangements for two peoples to live peaceably, side by side.

But because the recent formulation didn't expunge specific language word by word, and because a new covenant stating Palestinian aspirations will be drafted over the next six months, the whole enterprise has been denounced by Likud leaders and their American supporters as a "hoax," one more effort — they allege — to camouflage Arafat's evil intentions.

In too many cases, this is a deliberate mischaracterization on the part of those who need to demonize Arafat in order to foment opposition to the peace process, glean votes in the upcoming Israeli elections and raise money to keep afloat right-wing Jewish groups in the United States.

While a new, finished covenant would have been even better, the meaning of this vote is nevertheless as plain as day: The Palestinians' representative body has formally renounced the path of violence and embraced a peaceful end to this blood feud.

How many more tests must Arafat pass? Just what must he do before his critics will finally recognize that giving him and the Palestinians a chance to run their own affairs on land of their own — with airtight security guarantees for Israel — is the only credible path to peace and safety for Israelis?

Arafat delivered this historic, 504-54 vote under conditions that would have stopped almost any other national leader: Israel's borders were closed to most West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, and the Arab world was vociferously condemning Israel for its counterstrikes against Lebanese terrorists.

What could be better proof that Arafat and the Palestinians are serious about making peace than this vote, delivered at this time? The collective decision to renounce armed struggle came not only from longtime Palestinian moderates, but also from some of the most hardened veterans of the violent war on Israel.

And it was symbolically timed to coincide with the anniversary of the State of Israel's founding.

This was only the latest in a series of concrete actions that Arafat has taken to prove his sincerity to the Israeli people in recent years. Israel and Israel's supporters rightfully demanded that Arafat publicly renounce terror. He did so. We demanded that he accept less territory than the Palestinians wanted. He did so.

When Arafat tried to bring Hamas' political wing into his fold and terror ravaged Israeli cities early this year, we demanded that he clamp down even harder on terrorism. Since mid-January, his Palestinian Authority has arrested hundreds of Hamas terrorists and sympathizers, including eight of the 13 men most wanted by the Israeli government.

But every time the Palestinians take a painful, historic step toward reconciliation — a step that should be welcomed by those committed to Israel's survival — some dismiss it as subterfuge. Scan the Israeli and American Jewish press — and even the New York Times — these days, and you will find some writers in a rhetorical time warp. They write as if Israel is still a beleaguered state whose national existence is threatened by armed Palestinians, rather than a nation whose military and economic power is exponentially greater than that of its neighbors.

Israel's deals with Arafat are routinely and absurdly compared to Neville Chamberlain's capitulation to Hitler, rather than accords that Israel negotiated from a position of strength as the clear victor in its conflict with the Arabs.

It is time for these critics to stop moving the goalposts back on Arafat. Time for them to stop masking their rejection of the entire peace process by arguing that no matter what Arafat and his constituents say or do, no matter how many odious clauses the PNC revokes and how many agreements are kept, nevertheless "you just can't trust them."

Of course, Israel and its supporters should continue monitoring Palestinian actions to ensure that Israeli security is protected as the peace process unfolds. We don't have to like Arafat or forget his past. But now that he and his people have officially annulled the old outworn rhetoric to envision a better future, it is time for all Israelis and their supporters to do the same.