(April 26) - To paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of the PLO Covenant's demise is grossly exaggerated. Yasser Arafat's ability to get an overwhelming majority of Palestine National Council members to support changing this seminal PLO document, and the vagueness of the announcement on Wednesday night served to obscure a central fact: The PNC resolution was no more than a decision to make changes in the covenant. What precisely these changes will be, and what the new version will say is still anyone's guess.
As Peace Watch, the non-partisan organization monitoring the Oslo accord, put it yesterday, this action by the PNC "does not satisfy the obligation laid down in the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (Oslo 2). The PNC did not actually amend the covenant, but instead approved in principle that changes would be made, without specifying which clauses would be changed, in what manner, or by what date."
As of last night, no official version of Wednesday's resolution was available. The communique of the Palestinian Authority's news agency only asserted that the PNC had decided on changes of the articles in the covenant which are incompatible with the letters exchanged between the PLO and the Israeli government on September 9 and 10, 1993 (in which the PLO and Israel recognized each other's legitimacy).
One of the resolution's chief opponents, Khaidar Abdel Shaffi, said he understood the proposed changes would apply to only two articles. Another PNC member PNC said four articles would be altered. Still another said no specific number is under consideration.
The only thing beyond doubt is that the PNC will not meet its obligation under Article XXXI(9) of Oslo 2, which stipulates that the changes of the offending covenant articles must be completed within two months after the elected local Palestinian Council is inaugurated. This means that they must be made by May 7.
Only those who are familiar with the language of the covenant can appreciate why the late Yitzhak Rabin conditioned Israel's recognition of the PLO on fundamental changes in this document. Of its 33 articles, only the last three, which deal with procedural matters, are devoid of references to the illegitimacy of Israel, the denial of the Jews' right to nationhood, the paramountcy of the armed struggle, or the imperative of liberating all of Palestine. (Since no Palestinian state has ever existed, the covenant defines "Palestine" by the borders of the British Mandate, a territory granted Britain by the League of Nations for the explicit purpose of establishing a Jewish national home.)
Under pressure from the US administration and Congress, and with Israel forced to freeze the withdrawal process after the suicide bombings, Arafat had to do something to ensure the continuation of the Oslo process and the financial grants by the donor nations. But he did not "formally revoke clauses of the covenant which call for Israel's destruction," as the world press has mistakenly described it. Nor was his move "the most important development in our region in a hundred years," as Prime Minister Shimon Peres egregiously put it last night. In fact, if what Arafat has wrought does not prove to be a travesty and a hoax, it will be nothing short of a miracle.