GAZA — Days after his election to head the Palestinian Council, Yasser Arafat will not commit himself to revoking or amending those sections of the Palestine National Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.
"The covenant is like your American Constitution," he said Tuesday in an interview here with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
"You do not delete sections of your Constitution; you amend it."
And in Arafat's view, the Palestinians "have already amended it."
His stance — adopted either for dealing with recalcitrant members of the Palestinian leadership or for presenting a firm bargaining stance with Israel — could lead to a complete disruption of the peace process.
Since Saturday's elections, Israeli officials from Prime Minister Shimon Peres on down have insisted Arafat must revoke the offending clauses — as agreed to under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.
Revoking the offending clauses is considered by Israelis to be an important symbol of reconciliation between the two peoples.
Speaking at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday, Peres said if the PLO failed to live up to its obligation under the peace accords there would be no final-status negotiations, which include the future of Jerusalem and other sensitive issues. The final-status negotiations are slated to begin in May.
"The train will stop," Peres said of the peace process.
Arafat's latest hesitation came after the Palestinian leadership's second in command rushed to announce the next national objective — Palestinian independence.
Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, chairman of the central election committee, said the newly elected Palestinian Council would declare independence "within three years."
Abbas did not rule out the establishment of a Palestinian state even before the end of the three-year term of the new interim government. The declaration set off a wave of discomfort among Israelis, some of whom view the prospect as an anathema.
Israeli officials such as Health Minister Ephraim Sneh played down the latest Palestinian statement, while Peres called Arafat's prediction of a state within 18 months "a dream."
"What kind of a Palestinian state are they talking about?" Sneh asked. "A state where we control 70 percent of the West Bank?"
Ridicule it as he may, the Palestinian state seemed to draw nearer as Israeli government spokesmen did not reject Abbas' statement outright. They merely restated the official line, saying the matter would be resolved during negotiations on the final status of the territories.
Although the Labor Party formally rejects a Palestinian state, no one doubts that the "final status of the territories" most likely will mean an independent Palestinian state.
Any movement in that direction, of course, would depend Arafat's willingness to live up to the Oslo II Accords.
Among clauses of the 1964 Palestinian covenant that offend Jews are:
*"Armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine."
*"The establishment of Israel is fundamentally null and void."
*Zionism is "a racist and fanatical movement in its formation; aggressive, expansionist and colonialist in its aims."
*Other nations should "consider Zionism an illegitimate movement" and "prohibit its existence and activity."
Failure to revoke or amend the accords could also end U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
In Washington, D.C., a congressional aide responded to Arafat's remarks: "This Congress will not approve aid to the PLO if the covenant is not changed. It's that simple."
The United States has committed to $500 million to the Palestinians over five years but that aid is contingent on legislation known as the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which expires at the end of March.
According to the accords, the amendment of the charter must occur no later than two months after the inauguration of the new Palestinian government.
But Arafat sees it differently.
He said that in 1988 and in 1991, the Palestine National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile, passed declarations that obviated the need to change the covenant.
The 1988 declaration affirmed Israel's right to exist and renounced terrorism, and in 1991, "we agreed to attend the Madrid peace conference. There is no need to confirm again what has already been confirmed."
Sitting in a cushioned chair in the official reception room at his Gaza headquarters, he tapped his feet impatiently when the issue was pursued.
It seemed beside the point that he had promised in a September 1993 letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that the offending passages in the Palestinian Covenant be revoked.
Instead, he talked of actions already taken by the PNC, maintaining that they had "de facto and de jure" — by force of fact and law — implied their acceptance of Israel's right to exist.
"What we have to do is approve the Oslo II Accord," he said, referring to the agreement signed last September in Washington to extend West Bank autonomy.
That, too, he maintained, would reflect official Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state.
Arafat has given mixed signals in recent years about his intentions on the covenant.
He often has referred to the clause as inoperative or "caduc," the French word for null and void, when trying to justify why revocation is unnecessary.
In his 1993 letter of mutual recognition to Rabin, Arafat reiterated that but went further.
The "articles of the Palestinian covenant which deny Israel's right to exist" are "inoperative and no longer valid," he had said. Consequently, the [Palestine Liberation Organization] undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council" the "necessary changes" for formal approval.
Last October in New York, he told a gathering of American Jews that he would definitely convene the PNC after Palestinian elections to repeal the clause if Israel would let all the members of the council enter the territories to vote.
Peres said this week he would allow all members of the PNC into the autonomous areas to vote on abrogating the anti-Israel clauses of the charter.
On the future of Jerusalem, the eastern portion of which Arafat has repeatedly claimed as the capital of a future Palestinian state, Arafat confirmed a report that Israeli and Palestinian academics have been meeting to study the issue.
"There have been seminars…consultations," he said. But the discussions were not secret government-level talks, he added.
Still, the talks could prove enormously significant. Similar discussions held in Oslo between academic specialists of the two sides paved the way to the historic 1993 Declaration of Principles that laid out the framework for all that was to follow in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Indeed, the significance of Jerusalem to Arafat could be seen in the decor of his reception room: Directly behind his chair is an oblong photograph of the Old City with the Dome of the Rock looming large in the foreground.
Asked whether he had any vision of a preliminary framework that might settle the Jerusalem question to the satisfaction of both sides, Arafat referred to the Rome-Vatican model he has often spoken of before.
"The details have to be discussed," he said, but he was hopeful that answers could be found.
"Where there's a will, there's a way," he said. "Those who had a way to reach the Oslo agreements will find a way to answer all the issues."
The interview with Arafat took place in the context of a meeting between him and the director for interreligious affairs of the Latin American Jewish Congress.
Brazilian-based Rabbi Henry Sobel presented him with a sculpted dove of peace on the occasion of the Palestinian elections.