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U.S. Urges Arafat to Fulfill Pledge to Amend PLO Covenant

February 7, 1996
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Having secured a Syrian commitment to continue peace negotiations with Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher turned his attention this week to the Palestinian track, urging Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to revoke the clauses in the Palestine National Covenant that call for the destruction of Israel.

Christopher’s meeting with Arafat in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday took place as the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee ended several days of talks in the Egyptian town of El-Arish about how to deal with the covenant.

Arafat has in the past repeatedly vowed to amend the covenant, but the matter does not rest solely in his hands.

A two-thirds vote of the 540-member Palestine National Council, the so-called Palestinian parliament-in-exile, is required to amend the covenant.

Moreover, the PNC can only be convened by a majority of the PLO’s Executive Committee.

In a sign of the potential difficulties facing Arafat, he was unable to obtain a quorum from the Executive Committee after seven members of the 18-member committee boycotted this week’s meeting in El-Arish to demonstrate their opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords and to changing the Palestinian covenant.

The 11 members of the Executive Committee who did attend the El-Arish meeting reportedly reached a preliminary agreement to draft a new Palestine National Covenant, not to amend the existing one.

Palestinian officials were quoted as saying that this approach would prevent a confrontation between Arafat and those members of the PNC who oppose the PLO’s peace accords with Israel.

The Executive Committee set no date for convening the PNC, with officials saying only that the committee would meet again later this month, after the end of the fast month of Ramadan, to discuss convening the PNC.

Committee officials reportedly attached conditions to calling for a meeting of the PNC: the release of all Palestinian prisoners still in Israeli jails, a halt to Jewish settlement activities and the redeployment of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank town of Hebron.

Earlier this week, Israeli officials said that the redeployment in Hebron would not take place until after the PNC met and amended the Palestinian covenant.

During his meeting with Arafat, Christopher reminded him of his obligation, under the terms of the agreements with Israel, to amend the covenant.

“As the chairman and I discussed, it’s also essential for the members of the [Palestine National] council to fulfill their commitment to amend the covenant and also to take all possible steps to prevent terror,” Christopher said.

Arafat said he planned to put the issue before the 88-member Palestinian Council, which was elected last month, and before the Palestine National Council.

Responding to Arafat’s comments, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told reporters at a dedication ceremony of a border police training base that Israel expects that covenant to the amended two months after the elected Palestinian Council meets, as called for under the terms of the accord signed with the Palestinians last September in Washington.

From Gaza, Christopher traveled to Tel Aviv to brief Peres on his talks Tuesday in Damascus.

During his trip to Syria, Christopher persuaded Syrian President Hafez Assad to send a delegation to resume negotiations with Israel in eastern Maryland on Feb. 26. A State Department spokesman said in Washington that the talks were expected to last two weeks.

Assad agreed to continue the negotiations, despite reports that Damascus was thinking of suspending the talks because of Israeli plans to hold early national elections.

The talks, which were expected to include generals as well as diplomats from both sides, were scheduled to focus on security, normalization of ties and economic issues.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Peres, Christopher said that in agreeing to continue their negotiations, both sides showed their commitment to reaching a peace agreement in the current year.

Peres, who is expected to announce soon his decision to move forward Israel’s national elections from October to May, said the talks with Syria would continue, regardless of when elections are held.

He also said he was pleased that negotiations were continuing.

“It is easy to stop talks,” he said, “and less so to resume them.”

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