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NEWS ANALYSIS Palestinian promise to draft new covenant falls by wayside

JERUSALEM, May 6 (JTA) — 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 committed themselves to change their charter — most recently in the Hebron agreement signed in January — but no action has been taken. Some Israeli officials see this as significant; others are less concerned. The Palestinians, meanwhile, appear completely unwilling to deal with the issue. On April 24, 1996, the PNC, with a vote of 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, the supreme body representing all Palestinian political parties, 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 that the move be delayed. Indeed, some of Peres’ aides preferred that the PNC make do with a committee and some vague future date rather than adopt a new document. Their reasoning was purely practical. A new charter, the aides speculated, might recognize Israel, but it could also give voice to the Palestinian goal of sovereign statehood with Jerusalem as the capital. Now, a year later, some Israeli officials cite the absence of a new charter as proof that the Palestinians cannot be trusted to uphold their commitments. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, they say, has no right to keep alleging 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 that the Palestinians would soon come up with a new covenant. “Even if they do, it might be an even worse version than the original one,” he said. Others, both within Labor and Likud, do not see the drafting of a new Palestinian charter as a high priority. Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a candidate for the Labor Party leadership, feels that the time is not right for Israel to call on the Palestinians to change the covenant. “Had Labor been in power today,” Sneh said in an interview, “it would have been right to demand that the covenant be abolished.” But, he added, given the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israel can hardly call on the Palestinians to make the move. Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh sees the issue as a matter of priorities. “The Israeli demand that the Palestinians revoke the covenant is still on the agenda,” 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, stated a long-familiar argument from the Palestinian side. Last year’s decision to “annul certain clauses,” he said, had removed all the passages that Israel might deem offensive. The “time was not appropriate” to draft a new document, he added. The Palestinian Covenant surfaced 33 years ago, on June 2, 1964. The political manifesto of the Palestinians, it contains some particularly 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, stained with many bloody clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, before Arafat announced in Paris 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 that negate 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 that was 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 the 1996 elections in Israel. PNC Chairman Salim Za’anun, reflecting Arafat’s stance, convinced the delegates to vote for the proposed motion, telling them that they were buying time. The resolution that was approved 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 make specific reference to any of them. At this point, Arafat is apparently little concerned with the issue. Earlier this year, when he visited Washington, an Israeli reporter asked him when the Palestinians would draft a new covenant. His reply struck many observers as strange and irrelevant: “When you, the Israelis, will have your own constitution.”