Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of June 23, 1998
According to press reports, two issues are still preventing a US-Israel agreement on a second redeployment from Judea and Samaria. One is a fairly new dispute: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that the third redeployment also be settled now. The other, however, is as old as the Oslo process: the amendment of the PLO Covenant.
This is the first promise Yasser Arafat made to Yitzhak Rabin when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. Now, five years and several Israeli pullbacks later, Netanyahu is insisting that it finally be fulfilled before he transfers yet more land to the Palestinians. President Bill Clinton has conceded the justice of this demand in principle. All that is separating the two is a seemingly trivial detail: Netanyahu wants the Palestinian National Council to ratify a letter from Arafat listing the articles to be canceled; Clinton says it is enough for the 18-member PLO executive committee to do so.
Is it worth risking a confrontation with the US over such a small issue? The answer is, unequivocally, yes because this is far from a trivial matter. First, the covenant is hardly an insignificant document. The founding charter of the PLO, its importance to many Palestinians is similar to that of Israel's Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution.
Yet 26 of its 33 articles call for Israel's destruction or advocate violence against Israel. It is no accident that its amendment was the first demand Rabin made of Arafat during the Oslo talks. If the Palestinians were not even willing to eliminate such statements from their covenant, how could their claims of peaceful intentions be taken seriously?
This being the case, the issue is too important for Israel to accept a fraud. And Clinton's proposal is exactly that: a legal fraud of the highest order. The covenant itself stipulates that it can only be amended by a two-thirds vote of the approximately 600-member PNC. Therefore, under the Palestinian's own legal framework, the PLO executive has no more power to annul sections of the covenant than the Clinton or Netanyahu cabinets have to annul laws passed by their respective legislatures.
What makes Clintons absurd proposition tenable in diplomatic circles is the fiction that the PNC already amended the covenant, in April 1996. Arafat's letter merely details which articles were affected by this resolution. Why should the PNC have to ratify a decision it has already made? The problem with this argument is that the decision has not already been made. The PNC resolution of April 24, 1996 states merely that the PNC decides to change those clauses which contradict the exchange of letters between the PLO and the government of Israel from the 9th and 10th of September, 1993, and empowers the legal committee to redraft the charter and present it for approval.
BUT which clauses were amended? Following the vote, some PNC members said four articles had been changed; some said seven; some said 10; some said 33; and some said none. On January 22, 1998, Faisal Hamdi Husseini, head of the PNC's legal committee, said no changes had yet been made and from a legal perspective this is the only accurate assessment.
What the PNC did in 1996 is standard legislative procedure: It decided on a change in principle, and empowered a committee to work out the details. But until the committee returns with a concrete proposal, and the PNC approves it, this statement of intent has as much legal force as any other bill sent to committee: none at all.
Despite this, Arafat sent a letter to Clinton in January 1998 claiming that 12 articles had been canceled and another 16 changed - in an unspecified manner. This is what Clinton wants the PLO executive to ratify. Unfortunately, the executive committee's ratification of Arafat's letter would have the same legal force as a US cabinet ratification of a Clinton letter saying the Bill of Rights had been canceled again, none at all.
The only Palestinian body which can amend the covenant is the still the PNC. To assert otherwise is to express contempt for the workings of Palestinian democracy - something which both the US and Israel claim to want to encourage - and to foster the entrenchment of Arafat's dictatorship.
Yet Israel's vital interest goes beyond the question of Palestinian democracy, because burying things in committee is the oldest tactic known for avoiding changes one does not really want to make.
The legal committee might reasonably have spent a few months wrangling over details, but it has already been over two years and as far as anyone knows, it has not even started work yet. It therefore seems the 1996 resolution was merely a way to placate the US without actually changing the covenant. And Arafat's latest gimmick of having his executive ratify his letter accomplishes the same purpose.
Israel is therefore left with the old question: If the Palestinians cannot bring themselves to take such a simple step, how sincere can their intentions be? This is a question to which it must have an answer before giving the Palestinians still more tangible assets. Netanyahu is therefore absolutely right to reject Arafat's legal fraud.
(c) Jerusalem Post 1998