Palestinians new covenant not happening, Israelis say

JERUSALEM — A year has passed since the Palestine National Council voted to draft a new charter, but still there is no such document.

Palestinian leaders repeatedly have promised to change their charter — most recently in the Hebron agreement signed in January. But no action has been taken.

On April 24, 1996, the PNC, voting 504-54, with 14 abstentions, passed a vaguely worded resolution that, in effect, canceled the clauses in its charter that call for the destruction of Israel.

The PNC also adopted a resolution calling on a legal committee of the organization to draft a new charter within six months. Then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres hailed the vote, calling it "the most important change in the last 100 years."

Benjamin Netanyahu, then the opposition leader, was more cautious, saying the vote was only a vague mandate giving a "committee the power to amend clauses sometime in the future."

Palestinian officials explained last year that no new covenant had been drafted because their Israeli counterparts had informally requested a delay. Some of Peres' aides preferred that the PNC make do with a committee and some vague future date.

Their reasoning was purely practical. A new charter, the aides speculated, might recognize Israel, but could also express the Palestinian goal of sovereign statehood with Jerusalem as the capital.

Now some Israeli officials cite the lack of a new charter as proof that the Palestinians cannot be trusted to keep promises.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, they say, has no right to allege that Israel does not live up to its commitments to the Palestinians, given his dismal track record with the covenant.

"The Palestinians never intended to keep their word," Reserve Brig. Gen. Yigal Carmon, a former adviser on anti-terrorist affairs for premiers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, said in an interview.

"What right do they have to demand that the Israelis fulfill their commitments?"

Carmon said he doubted the Palestinians would soon draft a new covenant. "Even if they do, it might be an even worse version than the original one."

Others, both within Labor and Likud, do not see a new Palestinian charter as a high priority.

Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a candidate for the Labor Party leadership, feels the time is not right for Israel to call for the covenant.

"Had Labor been in power today," Sneh said, "it would have been right to demand that the covenant be abolished."

But given the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israel can hardly call on the Palestinians to make the move, he added.

"The Israeli demand that the Palestinians revoke the covenant is still on the agenda," Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh said in an interview. "But there are more immediate issues on the agenda, and I just do not know how practical our demand still is."

Fadel Tahbub, a PNC delegate from Jerusalem, voiced a familiar argument from the Palestinian side.

Last year's decision to "annul certain clauses," he said, had removed passages that Israel might deem offensive.

The Palestinian Covenant surfaced 33 years ago, on June 2, 1964.

The political manifesto contains provocative clauses, such as Article 9: "Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine;" and Article 19: "The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are entirely illegal."

It took a lengthy and painful process before Arafat announced in 1989 that the covenant was caduc, French for null and void.

The declaration was hailed as a sign of moderation, and it undoubtedly paved the way to the historic Declaration of Principles that Israel and the Palestinians signed Sept. 13, 1993 on the White House lawn.

Four days before that ceremony, in an exchange of letters of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Arafat wrote then-Premier Rabin that the articles in the Palestinian Covenant negating Israel's right to exist "are no longer practical and therefore invalid."

With this, Arafat committed himself to convene the PNC to introduce the necessary changes in the covenant.

He repeated that commitment in the May 4, 1994, Cairo Agreement that ratified the transfer of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho to Palestinian self-rule.

In the Interim Agreement signed Sept. 28, 1995 in Washington — whereby Israel agreed to transfer six additional West Bank population centers to self-rule — the Palestinians again agreed to draft a new covenant.

Under heavy pressure from Peres and the White House, Arafat convened the PNC on the eve of Israel's 1996 elections.

PNC Chairman Salim Za'anun, reflecting Arafat's stance, convinced the delegates to vote for the proposed motion, telling them they were buying time.

The approved resolution referred to clauses in the covenant that "contradicted the exchange of letters between Israel and the PLO."

Israel had presented to the Palestinians a list of 17 "problematic" clauses that needed to be eradicated. The PNC vote did not refer to any of them.

Arafat now seems barely concerned with the issue.

Earlier this year, when he visited Washington, an Israeli reporter asked him when the Palestinians would draft a new covenant.

In a reply that struck many observers as strange, he said the covenant would come "when you, the Israelis, will have your own constitution" — a reference to Israel's never having enacted a constitution.