The Middle East Forum, recently pioneered by New York immigrant to Israel, Dan Diker, held its first round table discussion on April 29, 1997 one year after the Palestine National Council met in a special session to cancel the Palestinian National Covenant. The agenda for the evening, at the Beit Agron International Press Center, was to discuss the current status of the Covenant. Has it been annulled, amended or frozen? Opinions varied.

The idea came to Diker, a graduate of Harvard Business School and advertising director for Virtual Jerusalem, from Ted Koppel’s Palestinian Round Table discussion. During a recent trip to New York, Diker began working on the venture, garnering assistance from prominent American Jews like former deputy mayor of New York Peter Solomon. The idea was to create a venue here, where the news is being made, that keeps focused on the issues, like Nightline, where experts from all sides can get together to discuss and debate issues in as politically uncharged an environment as possible. For both sides the issues, he said are so filled with emotion and drama. “I wanted to create an environment like the American journalistic model, like Ted Koppel, with lots of research presented in the context of political objectivity. Political and journalistic analysis in this country is such that people walk in, the makers and the reporters, with preconceived notions. This calls into question the reliabilty and objectivity of the event”.

The forum began with a video of TV news coverage of the Palestinian National Council voting session of April 24, 1996, during which members were to decide the future of the Covenant. That news coverage had been provided by the Tel Aviv and Gaza based INSTITUTE FOR PEACE EDUCATION LTD, which sent in the only TV crew to cover the session. What the video shows is the voting session of the PNC, where the PNC participants decide to postpone, NOT to cancel the covenant. Following the video, Hebrew University professor Yehoshua Porat, author of The Emergence of Palestinian Arab Nationalism, provided an analysis, followed by prominent members of the Israeli, Palestinian, and Foreign media. The event was judiciously moderated by Greer Faye Cashman of The Jerusalem Post. Professor Porat simply stated that the Palestinians have not annulled or amended the Covenant, and this is of integral importance to the peace process and for future negotiations. Porat, who ran number 13 on the list for knesset of the Meretz/Peace Now political party in the 1992 election, remains disillussioned by the lack of Palestinian adherence to their side of the accords. Some reports say that articles of the Charter were annulled which contradict the agreements between Arafat and Rabin in letters exchanged between the two of September 9 and 10, 1993. No one knows if these articles still exist, said Porat. No specific articles were stated as being cancelled, though some believe that article 19, which calls the establishment of the State of Israel entirely illegal, regardless of the passage of time…, was annulled. According to Porat who is fluent in Arabic and closely monitors the Arab press, there is no proof of the annullment or amendment of any of the articles on record.

One of those articles compares Zionism to a Nazi movement.

Porat went on to ask “Does article 22 still stand, which describes the Zionist movement as racist,fanatic and Nazi in its nature,besides aggressive, expansionist, imperialist and fascist in its methods? he asks. Or Article 6 which states that only Jews who had resided in Palestine at the time of the Balfour Declaration will be allowed to remain”?

Porat notes that when Arafat met with Muammar Gaddafi, who was very critical of the PLO upon news that theyd cancelled the charter, he explained the situation to Gaddafi, afterwhich a report appeared in the Libyan press stating that nothing was cancelled. Then the Israel media saw it, wrote about it, and it was denied by the Palestinians.

No redrafting of the charter has been undertaken. There has been no new text prepared and nothing brought to the Central Council.

Many people, even Israelis, say that it is not important. Porat disagrees. “Words and ideology are historical factors to be reckoned with. The PLO made a commitment and learned that they could circumvent it. I hear a lot about trust building, and confidence building measures, which Israel is asked to to change the atmosphere. This is not a one way street. Israel’s confidence also should be won, so that once there was peace, the Palestinians wouldn’t continue to demand their original plans (the complete destruction of Israel. Annulling the Covenant, or amending it, is the most important confidence building measure they can do and by their actions theyre showing us, concluded Porat.

Cashman commented If the shoe were on the other foot, and Israelis were found to have clause that required the expulsion and destuction of the Arabs,’we can just imagine how loud the condemnation would be.

Next to speak was Waled Awad, speaking as a researcher and media consultant to the Palestinian Authority. In his professional capacity with the PA, Awad runs their information dept.

Awad said he disagrees with the whole approach presented by Prof Porat. He sounds pessimistic, he said, referring to Porat. “I am optimistic”, he said, because there are two important issues here, he says.

Circumstances have changed completely since the Covenant was written in 1964, and he believes all this is semantics, a technicality. This was before the war in 1967 and the war in 1971. In 1974, in the PNC meeting they decided to opt for a different approach – for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian situation. That year Arafat went to the UN and spoke, and became the sole representative of the Palestinian people. In 1988, Awad said, when the PNC met in Algiers they announced the idea of a two state solution. What’s happened over the years automatically annulled whats written in the Covenant. It is Quaduq (null and void). He claimed that in 1982, at a conference in Rabat, the PLO recognized UN resolution 242. He said that all the articles were annulled on April 24, last year in a special meeting.

Porat later argued that the word “all” is mentioned nowhere in any release of the PNC or the PLO.

Legally, said Awad, “there is no covenant at the moment”. He said that it was not announced officially in order to keep it from people who would object. It has to do with how PNC chairman Saleem Al-Zaanoon, wants to justify it, and how to talk to the Palestinian people. Awad said that on the internet they have published suggested charters for a new Palestinian constitution. He continued to say If the Israeli government is not satisfied with this, and continues not to live up to the Oslo Accords, then we could say that it is not annulled, but for now, it is annulled, concluded Awad.

Porat responded to this attitude as obfuscation on the part of the Palestinians. Other speakers at the forum included Joel Greenberg of the New York Times and Jay Bushinsky of Westinghouse Broadcasting, and Yossi Torpstein, of Hamakom Harishon. Bushinsky believes that the Covenant was not amended or annulled. A problem in his opinion is that No one in the government in Israel denied that the Charter had been amended. The opposition was never quoted, and their speeches were never mentioned in the press, so they never reached people overseas. The world believes that it was amended. I think its all wishfull thinking on the part of the Israelis. There are situations in which things arent decided just because someone wants it. Bushinsky has been covering the Middle East for 30 years and says he has learned to listen to the Arab point of view. The Israelis do not have a partner in negotiatiations who wants peace, in his opinion, based on what he sees happening around him. Joel Greenberg, on the other hand, sees the question as settled. He accepts the statements of Arafat in his letter to Rabin of September 9 as being enough. In it he stated that the PLO recognizes the right of Israel to exist in peace and security. Arafat said they agreed to cancel all issues in the Covenant. Both governments accepted it as a cancellation at the time, said Greenberg. Still another perspective was offered by native Israeli journalist Yossi Torpstein. According to the September 9 letter, he said, Arafat also renounced use of any violence and recognised the need for peaceful co-existence. “I attended that session of the PNC and talked to many members. They were concerned about Israels lack of implementation of its agreements. They were saying, why should they cancel or amend the Covenant when Israel is not doing what it agreed to, he said. They were referring to the agreement to release prisoners, to ensure safe passage to Palestinians, and at the time, to a withdrawal from Hevron”.

There was some intrigue in the session. Porat revealed, for the first time, why it was that Shimon Peres so loudly proclaimed that the PLO covenant was cancelled, only two hours after the vote at the PNC. It was Israeli Independence Day that day in 1996. Peres declared this vote to be a great birthday present for Israel, and, indeed, one of the greatest days in the history of Zionism. What Peres relied on was that the legal advisor of the Israel Foreign Ministry, Yoel Singer, had met with Arafat’s aide, Nabil Sha’at, to write up an agreed upon resolution for the PNC to cancel the covenant. However, Sha’at could not get the Singer-Sha’ath memo past the PNC – what did get past the PNC was NOT the resolution that Peres thought was adopted – hence, the confusion.

There was not one media organ in the entire world that did not echo the enthusiasm of Israel Prime Minister Shimon Peres who heralded the dawn of a new era.

And it was not until May 20, 1996 that Porat had brought the first showing of the PNC video and the actual protocols of the PNC session to Israel Television and the rest of the Israeli media – a factor which undermined the credibility of Shimon Peres, less than ten days before he was to lose his campaign for re-election as Prime Minister of Israel.

In 1996, not one media outlet outside of Israel reported that the PLO did not change its covenant that calls for continued war against the state of Israel.

Meanwhile, since American law specifically forbids the American government from maintaining any contact with the PLO unless and until it changes its covenant, the question remains one year later: Why is the American government maintaining contact with the PLO?