Its time for Palestinians to change covenant — or else

The top priority for Yasser Arafat and his newly elected 88-member Palestinian Council is to repeal those sections of the PLO Covenant denying Israel's right to exist and calling for its destruction. Unless that is done, the peace process will grind to a halt.

That threat comes directly from Prime Minister Shimon Peres, both publicly and privately, and he can't afford to back down.

The message was delivered to Arafat personally by Vice President Albert Gore and Secretary of State Warren Christopher at the request of Peres a few days before last Saturday's voting. The other half of the message to the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization was a warning that he must escalate the war on terrorism.

The redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank has given Arafat control over 28 percent of the territory and 90 percent of the Palestinian population, and it has taken away any excuse for not dealing with the problem. American and Israeli officials say Peres' warning is that if there are more terrorist incidents, the government response will be harsh and uncompromising.

Peres fears the Israeli public will lose confidence in the peace process on which he has staked so much personally and politically.

The election was a major achievement for the Palestinian population, who have had a front row seat observing Israeli democracy and wanted some of their own. Whether Arafat will give it to them remains questionable.

The president of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) has been called many things, but a democrat is not one of them. What remains to be answered is whether he saw the elections as the first step towards empowerment of the Palestinian people or bread and circuses for the masses.

The elections allow Arafat to consolidate and legitimize his power. They are an expression of popular support for the peace process and the beginning of the rise of a new generation of Palestinian leaders.

The losers were the extremists on both sides. The Israeli opposition could only muster small numbers of demonstrators Saturday night for a rally in Jerusalem's Zion Square. The turnout of fewer than 15,000 was half that of the previous rally there by the same groups in October, prior to the assassination.

Hamas and other Islamic fundamentalist opponents of the peace process and the elections suffered a major defeat. The voter turnout was 80 percent to 90 percent in most places, according to Israeli media. After toying with the idea of competing, the Islamists declined because they correctly feared an expected poor showing would reveal just how low their public support really is.

The elections were a giant move toward Palestinian statehood. But Peres has threatened "the train will be halted" unless the unacceptable portions of the covenant are scrapped.

There had been some talk of scrapping this covenant, because it is rife with offensive passages, and drafting a new Palestinian charter, but Arafat appeared to rule that out last weekend. Comparing the PLO Covenant to the U.S. Constitution, he said, "You do not change the Constitution,you only add amendments."

He has two months from convening the newly elected council to call together the Palestinian National Council (PNC) and make the changes. Failure will prevent the start of negotiations with Israel on the final status issues — Jerusalem, water, borders, refugees — now scheduled to begin in early May. It will also halt further transfer of power from Israel to the P.A., additional redeployment of Israeli forces, withdrawal from Hebron, economic cooperation and assistance, and other benefits.

The United States and Israel also have told Arafat clearly that the changes in the covenant must be prompt and unambiguous and "nothing tricky" that would allow anyone to claim the old covenant is still in force.

"There is zero tolerance for delay and excuses," said an Israeli official.

One American diplomat said, "We'll have to hold them to standards and be prepared to rap knuckles."

This is one topic the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress agree on. Aid and relations with Arafat and the P.A. will halt if Arafat doesn't deliver. The authorizing legislation expires at the end of March, and Congress is unlikely to renew it unless the PNC has voted repeal.

Two U.S. senators who wrote the legislation linking aid to repeal met with Arafat earlier this month in Gaza. "Arafat said that would be accomplished within two months after the election," reported Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who was accompanied by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). Specter "intends to make sure Arafat keeps his word," said an aide. He can expect a lot of help.

Organizations that have been lobbying on Capitol Hill — so far unsuccessfully — against aid to the Palestinians can be counted on to escalate their activities; this time they will face little opposition.

Some Palestinian figures have been giving interviews with their own versions of how, when and even whether the covenant can be changed, but there is only one voice with any authority and all the responsibility: Arafat.

Arafat has said the Council will convene "within four weeks," according to the Jerusalem Post, setting the deadline for repeal about April 20, some two weeks before final status negotiations are scheduled to begin with Israel.

The PNC, not the newly elected body, must make the changes. But Arafat plans to add all 88 as well as another 100 top vote-getters from Saturday's election to the PNC, whose exact size is uncertain. Peres has said that all members of the PNC outside the West Bank and Gaza will be allowed into P.A. areas in order to vote on the charter change.

It is not clear whether there is a detailed list of changes which must be made in the covenant, and if there is, whether the United States and Israeli lists agree.

Jewish theologian and philosopher Emil Fackenheim has suggested adding a new article "recognizing a Zionist right to the land as no less valid than the document makes on behalf of the Palestinians." This "PLO reciprocity," he says, would "revolutionize the whole covenant."

Whatever form the change takes, it must be clear and unequivocal. The future of the peace process could depend on it.