Palestinian vote to nullify covenant is replay of 96

JERUSALEM — The gathering of hundreds of Palestinian representatives in the Gaza Strip this week felt like a remake of an old movie.

When the members of the Palestine National Council, along with other groups, jumped to their feet and raised their hands to show President Clinton that they no longer seek Israel's destruction, their actions bore a striking resemblance to what they did in the spring of 1996.

At that time, the group voted overwhelmingly in favor of a vaguely worded resolution amending the covenant "by annulling clauses which contradict the exchange of letters between the PLO and the government of Israel on Sept. 9 and 10, 1993."

The script was almost identical, and so were the protagonists. And like then, this week's vote was met with praise. President Clinton thanked Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip for rejecting the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter.

"I am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity" to see the conference attendees "standing up tall" to revoke the clauses, Clinton said.

"By revoking them once and for all, you have sent a powerful message not to the government, but to the people of Israel."

Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had sought a formal vote annulling the clauses, said he accepted the outcome of the Gaza meeting.

The premier had long demanded that a formal vote be taken at the meeting — but his adviser, David Bar-Illan, was soon saying, "This is the cancellation according to the formula of the Wye River Conference. There was a vote, there was no question about that."

At a Jerusalem news conference, Netanyahu said the change in the charter came as a result of his government's staunch position on the subject.

"It was achieved, foremost, because we demanded cancellation," said Netanyahu, who faces a no-confidence motion in the Knesset next week that hardliners in his coalition have threatened to back.

But it remained unclear whether the move would end the more than 30-year controversy surrounding the covenant — and solve the latest stumbling block in the peace talks.

The PNC was formed in 1964 as the supreme legislative body of the Palestinian people. Long known as the Palestinian parliament-in-exile, the PNC was supposed to be elected directly by the Palestinian people, but elections never materialized. Its influence has waned in recent years, with the formation of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Council, which represents Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The charter was adopted at what later became known as the first meeting of the PNC. On June 2, 1964, at the Ambassador Hotel in eastern Jerusalem, the 33 articles of the Palestinian charter were approved — 28 of which negate Israel's right to exist and call for its annihilation. It is those articles that Israel has insisted be revoked.

Some of the clauses do, indeed, sharply contrast with the current Palestinian policy of coexistence. The first three articles declare that the Palestinian people have the sole right to Palestine in its pre-1948 borders.

According to Article 9, "armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine," and Article 19 says, "The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the State of Israel are entirely illegal."

For the past 10 years, Palestinian leaders had said the covenant was no longer in effect.

On Sept. 9, 1993, prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin committing himself to changing the clauses negating Israel's right to exist and those that contradict the Palestinian promise to refrain from violence.

After Netanyahu took over as prime minister and after the Palestinians failed to come through on their promise to redraft the covenant, the issue heated up once again.

Last January, Arafat spelled out in a letter to Clinton the 28 articles that would be annulled. The PLO Executive Committee and Central Council ratified the letter last week, and the PNC, joined by others, approved it in front of the president on Monday.

But despite the initial positive reviews, it remains to be seen whether this latest scene in the Israeli-Palestinian drama will lead to tangible progress in the peace process — or whether it will just be another burst of optimism that wanes over time.