Editorial From The Jerusalem Post Of October 27, 1996

Covenant Deadline Unmet

AN important deadline passed almost unnoticed last week.

Six months ago, there was a meeting of the Palestine National Council, allegedly for the purpose of finally canceling its infamous Covenant. And on April 24, the council made a decision which was hailed by then prime minister Shimon Peres as "the most important development in our region in a hundred years": It authorized a legal subcommittee to consider ways of amending the Covenant, and report back to the full council within six months.

The six months expired on Thursday, and there is still no sign of an amended Covenant. Indeed, there is no sign that the legal subcommittee even exists, much less that it has actually done any work.

Given the PLO's record, this is hardly surprising. The promise to amend the Covenant was first made as part of thefamous exchange of letters between PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993. Indeed, the repeal of the Covenant was the main thing Arafat promised Israel in exchange for diplomatic recognition and the opening of negotiations aimed at transferring control of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza to the PLO.

While this promise included no formal deadline, it could reasonably have been expected that it would be fulfilled at the same time Israel began fulfilling its side of the bargain. This occurred with the May 1994 Cairo Agreement, under which Israel gave Arafat full control of Gaza and Jericho, as well as certain civilian powers in the rest of Judea and Samaria. In exchange, however, Israel got only another promise to amend the Covenant -- again, without even a deadline. In September 1995, Israel signed the Interim Agreement, which promised the PLO full control of the seven major cities of Judea and Samaria, plus complete civilian control and partial security control of some 400 villages.

By the end of 1995, Israel had fulfilled this promise every place except Hebron. All it got in exchange for this pullback, however, was yet another promise to amend the Covenant. The only difference this time was that the promise included adeadline: May 7, 1996. This deadline was the reason for the April 24 circus: It enabled both Peres and the rest of the world to declare that the promise had been kept and the Covenant had been amended. The truth, of course, was far otherwise. Not a single article of the Covenant was actually amended at thesession. According to an internal document published at the end of April by Fatah's Research and Thought Department in Ramallah, "the text of the Palestinian National Covenant remains as it was, and no changes whatsoever were made to it." Salim Zaanoun, chairman of the Palestinian National Council, wrote in An-Nahar on May 16 that "no specific articles" of the covenant had been canceled. Indeed, even the decision to refer the matter to a legal subcommittee did not appear in the list of PNC resolutions published in the daily Al-Quds on April 26.

Even among those too honest to subscribe to the lie that the Covenant had actually been amended, however, there were still optimists who insisted that the April 24 decision represented some progress. At least, they said, the PLO is working on the problem. But with the passage of yet another deadline last week, it is time for Israel -- and the world -- to finally face facts: The PLO not only has not amended the Covenant; it evidently has no intention of doing so.

This is not something Israel can let pass. Thirty of the Covenant's 33 clauses call for Israel's destruction. Of all the many PLO violations of its agreements with Israel, this is one of the most fundamental. The agreements with the PLO of necessity entail transferring much of the responsibility for Israel's security to the Palestinian Authority. Under those agreements, Israel has helped the PA to establish an armed force which currently numbers 45,000 men, and which can be expected to grow as the process proceeds; it has also surrendered vital intelligence functions to the PA. Furthermore, Israel has given the PA strategic territory, and will presumably give it more if the process continues. All these steps are foolhardy unless the PA is genuinely committed to peace. But if the PLO is unwilling even to amend its constitution so that it no longer defines Israel's destruction as its No. 1 goal, what kind of commitment to peace does that show? Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu correctly made the Covenant a central issue of his campaign, promising that his government would not continue giving land and power to the PA unless this document were finally amended. Since his election, however, this promise has gone the way of too many others. The issue was barely mentioned at Friday's cabinet meeting, though it was supposed to have been a major topic of discussion. Nor did Netanyahu mention the Covenant in public statements after the cabinet meeting.

Worst of all, he is continuing to negotiate a withdrawal from Hebron as if this issue did not exist. While Israel's failure to withdraw from Hebron is an indisputable violation of the Oslo Accords, it is neither as fundamental nor as long-standing a violation as the PLO's refusal to amend its Covenant. It would not be unreasonable to link the two.

Arafat has made it clear that he will not amend the Covenant unless he is forced to, and so far, Israel has chosen not to force him. This is vital mistake -- because no people genuinely interested in peace could be unwilling to amend this vile document. And if the Palestinians are not interested in peace -- if they are merely interested in milking Israel for everything they can get in preparation for the next war -- then there is no point in continuing the process.

Netanyahu should flatly refuse to move forward until this document is amended. This is not an unreasonable demand, for the Covenant is at the very heart of the process. Its amendment is the very minimum the Israeli people have the right to expect.

(c) Jerusalem Post 1996

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