Now that the votes are counted in the first Palestinian elections, the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres has quickly shifted the focus to the next step in the peace process.
The Israeli prime minister is looking beyond the newly elected Palestinian Council – headed by Yasser Arafat and largely controlled by Arafat loyalists – and is urging the revocation of clauses in the Palestinian charter that call for Israel’s destruction.
By calling for this next step, which is laden with political and emotional significance for both Palestinians and Israelis, the Peres government is seeking to place the onus of responsibility for the further success of the peace process squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinians.
It is now up to Arafat and his elected colleagues to demonstrate that they can rein in terrorism and that they can take the symbolic step that will enshrine the reconciliation between the two nations.
The abrogation of the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestine Liberation Organization covenant must take place no later than two months after the inauguration of the new government, according to Israeli-Palestinian agreements that paved the way to Saturday’s elections.
Israel has said that a failure to so do would be a cause for a freeze in the negotiations.
Peres is not the only voice in the government exhorting Arafat to look ahead.
Minister of Health Ephraim Sneh said Monday that the process of Palestinian self-determination would depend upon the proper and satisfactory implementation of the accords between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. In particular, Sneh focused on the abrogation requirement, calling it the next vital test on the path to the eventual permanent-status settlement between the two groups.
Yossi Beilin, minister without portfolio and a close Peres confidant, warned Sunday in uncharacteristically blunt terms that there would be no permanent- status negotiations, no further redeployment and, in fact, no movement forward if the Palestinians did not eliminate the clauses.
The abrogation, it is felt in government circles, would finally lay to rest most peoples’ fears about the course and ultimate goals of the peace process with the Palestinians – provided, of course, that the state of security is satisfactory.
Israeli and Palestinian forces have still been on full alert, fearing a major reprisal by Islamic hardliners for the killing earlier this month in Gaza of Hamas terrorist Yehiya Ayash, also known as “The Engineer.” Israel is widely believed to be behind the killing of Ayash, who was the reputed mastermind of several terrorist attacks against Israelis.
Many also believe that the abrogation or amending of the PLO covenant would seriously weaken the Likud-led opposition’s ongoing efforts to find fault with the agreements already signed with the Palestinians and to persuade the public, during this election year, that the whole peace process will lead to disaster.
What Arafat needs to do now is convene the Palestinian National Council, the PLO parliament in exile, to eliminate the wording. The 88 members of the Palestinian Council elected Saturday, many of whom appear to be willing to amend the covenant, are to become members of the PNC and will participate in its deliberations when Arafat convenes the body.
There has even been talk by some Palestinian officials of the possibility of a new covenant altogether.
To aid the effort, Peres disclosed just as the polling stations closed Saturday that he would permit all members of the PNC, even those opposed to the peace accords and those with Jewish blood on their hands, to return to the West Bank and Gaza in order to attend its sessions.
Arafat was to draw up a list of some 100 PNC members for whom he wants Israel to grant entry.
While the structure to revoke the clauses appears to be in place, the new executive leader of the Palestinian government still faces a challenge, because the manner in which the clauses in question are abrogated or amended will be a direct reflection on him.
Some of the PNC members have consistently opposed Arafat’s peace moves with Israel.
The PNC includes, at least nominally, such rejectionist leaders as George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The two quickly declared Sunday in Syria that they would not be availing themselves of Peres’ invitation.
And at least one former leader of the Hamas fundamentalist group won a seat on the new Palestinian political body, even though the Islamic group officially boycotted the elections.
It also remains to be seen how well Arafat handles the not-so-quiet voices that oppose his vision of peace.
Radical Palestinian groups based in Damascus condemned the results of the historic elections, saying that Arafat’s success was false. They called for new elections that would include Palestinians living abroad.
Hamas spokesman Ibrahim Ghoshe said that if Palestinians around the world could have cast ballots, no more than “20 percent” would have selected the 66-year- old Arafat.
Although the Arab League congratulated Arafat, it expressed sympathy for the Palestinians scattered across the Middle East who did not participate in the elections.
Some observers remain skeptical about whether Arafat, despite his new and enormously enhanced status as the elected leader of his people, has the political clout to produce the required two-thirds majority of the PNC to amend the covenant.
Arafat must be able to dismiss these naysayers, and rely on the more optimistic heavy hitters – both Israeli and Palestinian – in his corner.
Peres himself told Arafat, in a telephone conversation that was repeated to media, that he had no doubt that the Palestinian side would live up to its commitment. Peres stressed the Palestinians’ profound interest in the continuation of all aspects of the peace process, including the political and the economic.
And the Palestinians’ No. 2 man, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who headed the election committee and is thus bolstered by the election’s success, duly assured Israeli reporters that the commitment would indeed be honored.
Abu Mazen regarded the PNC’s upcoming move on abrogation such a fait accompli that he rushed to announce Monday that the newly elected council would declare Palestinian independence before the end of the three-year term of the newly elected interim government.
The declaration sent a wave of discomfort within the Israeli political community.
Opposition forces in Israel have hardly been quiet about the possibility that former terrorists would receive Israeli visas.
But word of a Palestinian state, especially at this early point in the process, in considered blasphemous in many Israeli homes.
A strong Likud reaction to Abu Mazen would seem natural.
But even the pro-peace process Minister of Health Sneh tried to play down Abu Mazen’s statement. “What kind of a Palestinian state are they talking about?” he said. “A state where we control 70 percent of the West Bank?”
Likud opposition leader Benjamin in Netanyahu made an observation one would not necessarily expect from him: He said that if the Palestinians changed their covenant, he might accept Palestinian autonomy.
Netanyahu, however, added that the Palestinians must also change their “attitude toward Israel as a Jewish state.”