Despite his flaws, Arafat has kept word on big issues

By rescinding most of its charter, the Palestine National Council has posed a paradox to both sides in the Arab-Israel peace process.

If, as many Palestinians claimed, the covenant was no longer a matter of great importance given today's changed circumstances, why was it so hard and emotionally painful for them to change it?

And if, as Israeli opponents of the peace-process claim, the Palestinian Liberation Organiza-tion's constitution was of critical importance because it revealed the PLO's true nature, how can they not now acknowledge that organization's profound transformation into a partner that genuinely wants to make peace through compromise?

The covenant, which was the central document in the history of the PLO and the Palestinian nationalist movement, clearly stated principles, views and policies that made peace impossible for many decades:

*Israel must be destroyed.

*The Palestinian Arabs must rule the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

*Armed struggle should be the sole tactic to achieve this.

*The only strategic choice was to rely on pan-Arab nationalism and persuade Arab states to fight Israel.

From its founding in 1964 up to 1988, the PLO clung to these tenets. Hardly a single dissenting voice was heard. But at the 1988 meeting of the PNC, talk of serious but tentative change began.

By signing its agreement with Israel in 1993, the path down that alternative road was clearly taken. Last week in Gaza, the decree was sealed.

This development's importance cannot be overstated. To date, the central question in the conflict has been whether the Arab side would abandon the stance embodied in the covenant.

The Palestinian people's fate was the second issue. Yet this problem could not be solved until the conflict was redefined from one of deciding whether Israel had a right to exist, to seeking a two-state solution.

There are many on both sides who still do not accept this new approach. But the PNC's decision will surely increase both the peace process' momentum and public support for it.

While PLO and Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat still has much work to do in rallying his people, his firm leadership in Gaza is a big step in this direction.

Being put on the defensive, Arafat's opponents claimed they only rejected changes in order to extract more concessions from Israel. In reality, though, they simply continued to adhere to their hardline ideas.

For the leftist Popular Front and the Democratic Front, this was a last stand. The radical Islamic Hamas, not the neo-Marxists of the 1970s, is now the critical anti-Arafat force.

Another less visible factor is the decisive shift toward dominance by Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza over exiles, and for the Palestinian Authority over the PLO or PNC.

Just three years ago, not a single member of the PLO executive committee or Fatah's central committee lived in the territories. The arrival of several hundred PNC delegates, with Israel's approval, continues a geographic shift of major political significance. Those who must deal with practical problems are replacing those who deal only in slogans.

Despite his shortcomings, Arafat has kept his word on the big issues. For two years, he said receiving an electoral mandate would let him fulfill his commitment to change the covenant. He has also worked harder to reduce terrorism.

Of course, this progress has been achieved only with firm Israeli and international pressure on Arafat. But from the outset, outside prodding was envisioned as something that would no doubt be necessary.

There is still a long way to go, yet no one should take for granted that Israel has achieved a goal much-sought over half a century. Even with the recent fighting in Lebanon, the old Arab-Israeli conflict is dead. And good riddance to it.