When President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, said before the Netanyahu/Arafat visits to Washington that "this is the time for tough decisions", I assumed he had both parties in mind. Unfortunately, comments coming out of the Clinton Administration before the trip gave reason to believe that this was not going to be the case.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's one-sided comment that ``it is important for us to move forward on these further redeployments and to fulfill some of the obligations of the interim [Oslo] agreements that has to do with opening airports and safe passage,'' certainly did not jibe with "even-handedness".
The Washington visits clearly illustrates just what kind of "tough decisions" Clinton's team had in mind for Arafat: the decision to hand over yet another letter about the Palestinian Covenant and an agreement to a photo opportunity at Washington's Holocaust Museum. The Clinton Administration's satisfaction with Arafat's handling of the Palestinian Covenant is a real puzzle:
Back on September 9, 1993, Arafat promised in a letter to Yitzhak Rabin that "the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter are now inoperative and no longervalid. Consequently, the PLO undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council for formal approval the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant."
When The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement On The West Bank And The Gaza Strip was signed in Washington on September 28, 1995, Arafat promised "The PLO undertakes that, within two months of the date of the inauguration of the Council, the Palestinian National Council will convene and formally approve the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant."
With elections in Israel approaching, the Palestinian National Council met and is reported to have decided "The Palestinian National Charter is hereby amended by canceling the articles that are contrary to the letters exchanged between the P.L.O and the Government of Israel 9-10 September 1993" and "Assigns its legal committee with the task of redrafting the Palestinian National Charter in order to present it to the first session of the Palestinian central council." The canceled articles were not specified.
A week later, on May 5, 1996, Gaza attorney Faisal Hamdi Husseini, the head of the Palestine National Council (PNC) Judicial Committee announced that he would submit a new Palestinian Covenant in three months in which 21 articles will be changed or canceled. Keep in mind the number 21, I will be returning to it shortly. Three months passed and Husseini didn't do anything. But this didn't stop the Clinton Administration and Shimon Peres from asserting that Arafat had, in fact, honored this obligation.
Which brings us to the first of several "Catch-22" situations: If Clinton and Peres were correct in their claim that Arafat actually changed the Charter, why did Dennis Ross include in the January 15, 1997 Note for the Record that "The process of revising the Palestinian National Charter will be completed." And they were supposed to act on this "immediately".
Last Thursday Faisal Hamdi Husseini told me "There has been a decision to change the covenant. The change has not yet been carried out." He noted that there were no technical problems holding up the process: "When one side advances matters, the second side will also advance."
There is only one way to change the Charter, and it's stated explicitly in the Charter itself: "Article 33: This Charter shall not be amended save by [vote of] a majority of two-thirds of the total membership of the National Congress of the Palestine Liberation Organization [taken] at a special session convened for that purpose." But Arafat has no plans to convene the PNC to approve an explicitly amended Charter. Instead he produced yet another letter. This time addressed to President Clinton.
And in a masterstroke of ex-post engineering, this letter declared that when the PNC voted they thought they were dropping or changing a total of 28 articles - 7 more than Husseini, the man responsible for putting together a revised Charter, said he was going to deal with!
Instead of advising Arafat to finally get to work, State Dept. spokesman James Rubin said that the US considers the contents of the letter "an important step towards completing the process of revising the charter. As far as what additional steps need to be made, at this point all we want to say is that these need to be discussed directly between the parties."
Does it matter that the PNC hasn't really amended the Charter? Here is the paradox: Is it that the Clinton Administration doesn't want to press Arafat for a PNC vote because it doesn't think he can pull it off? If this is so then a crucial assumption at the very foundations of the Oslo process is false. And if this underlying assumption is false, it would be folly for Israel to continue trading land for worthless paper.
The visits could have been a watershed event in which Clinton finally insisted on Palestinian compliance. Instead we are witness to continuation of his destructive "damn the violations full withdrawal ahead" policy.
Dr. Aaron Lerner is the Director IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis)
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