Like a cat with nine lives, the PLO Covenant refuses to die, leaving doubts about the seriousness of the fledgling Palestinian entity’s acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.

That is the message of a panel discussion consisting of journalists and academics, in which a video of the famous PNC vote was shown, sponsored by the Middle East Forum at the Beit Agron Press Center last night.

Speaking before a packed audience, Professor Yehoshua Porat of Hebrew University, an expert on Palestinian nationalism, said the Palestinian National Council has failed to make the changes required by the Oslo Agreement, which calls for the PNC to remove all articles in the Covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.

This accusation comes just over one year after the historic PNC voting session in Gaza, after which Shimon Peres proclaimed that Arafat had fufilled his promise to amend the thirty two year old charter.

Porat countered Peres’s claim, pointing out that the resolution adopted by the PNC that day only declared the PNC’s willingness to change the Covenant, legally leaving it unaltered. Porat also noted that the resolution, which calls for abrogating those articles which stand in contradiction to Oslo, did not specify which articles were to be changed, leaving the Covenant in a state of ambiguity.

Porat revealed that Peres’s belief that the PNC had cancelled the Covenant resulted from a misunderstanding between him and his legal advisor, and Nabil Sh’ath. The day before the vote, Sh’ath told the legal advisor that he would submit to the PNC the next day a resolution calling for the cancellation of the Covenant. However, Sh’ath presented a different resolution, which would then send the matter to the Central Council. He did not relay this change to his Israeli counterpart. When Peres heard the next day that a resolution had been adopted, he assumed that the PNC had fulfilled its mission.

While not disagreeing with Porat’s claim that the Covenant was not legally altered, Joel Greenberg, Jerusalem correspondent for the New York Times, questioned whether this was a cause for concern. Recounting an incident between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at the Madrid peace talks, Greenberg described how no one on the Palestinian team had a copy of the Covenant when the Israelis brought up the issue. The Israeli negotiators had to provide the Palestinians with one. By this time, Greenberg argued, the Covenant had become a dinosaur. A Palestinian researcher participating on the panel concurred, noting that Arafat had accepted UN Resolution 242, which recognizes Israel’s right to exist, back in 1988. While not officially changing the charter, this change of direction on the part of the PLO made the Covenant obsolete. The legal process of abrogating the charter was completed in the fall of 1996, he said, but did not provide any evidence to verify it.

The showing of the video cast doubts on the claim that the Covenant had ceased to have any importance for the PLO. Speaking before the members of the PNC, Saleem al-Za’anoon, PNC chairman, stated:

“…if we amend those articles, whose amendment is demanded it will mean that we have paid a very high price. And if we prepare a new proposal, it will be less damaging than the 1st solution.”

Porat asked why the PNC failed to change the Covenant in compliance with Oslo if by this time it no longer had any importance. He noted that Arafat has defended his apparent acceptance of Israel to Arab critics by basing it on the PLO resolution of 1974, which calls for the PLO to set up a state on any part of Palestine, and then use it as a launching pad from which to liberate the rest of Palestine. Porat said he does not know that Arafat is acting according to the “phased plan”, but said that he is in doubt since Arafat has not changed the Covenant.

Porat further pointed out that besides not specifying which articles were to be annulled, the resolution did not say all articles that contradict Oslo would be changed. This is a crucial distinction, and it is unlikely that such a semantic error escaped the PNC’s attention. After all, Resolution 242 calls on Israel to withdraw from lands occupied during wars, instead of from the lands or all lands. Israeli officials have argued on occasion that on this basis they have fulfilled their obligations under 242, and therefore do not have to cede more territory. Presumably Palestinians are familiar with this argument.