Newspaper headlines last week announced that the PLO had finally deleted the many clauses in its National Covenant that call for Israel's destruction or urge violence against Israel.
But a closer look at the action taken by the Palestinian Liberation Organization reveals that, in fact, nothing has been changed.
The Oslo Accords require the PLO to change all 30 (out of 33) anti-Israeli articles in the PLO National Covenant, by May 7, 1996. And U.S. law requires the PLO to make the changes in order to qualify for $500 million in American aid.
But when the PLO's Palestinian National Council met last week to vote on the covenant, it did not vote to change the specific articles, as required.
The Jerusalem Post reported that "the vote did not actually change the Covenant, but gave the authority to a PNC legal committee to do so or to draw up a completely new charter within six months…Exactly which of the 33 articles will be changed has been left to the legal committee and could fall short of Israel's expectations."
Ha'aretz, Israel's most prominent liberal daily newspaper, noted in a lead editorial: "The Palestinian Council has still not officially changed the [anti-Israel] clauses in the Covenant; a special legal committee will deal with it."
The Israeli media is not alone in raising questions about the PLO's action.
CNN World News also reported that the PNC resolution regarding the covenant "used the future tense and was unspecific" about which clauses may eventually be revoked. Voice of America Radio noted that the wording of the PNC resolution was "somewhat ambiguous" and may have "only expressed an intent to revoke the offending clauses as part of the process of drafting a new Charter."
And Barton Gellman, the Jerusalem correspondent of the Washington Post, reported, "The precise status of the charter, a 33-paragraph manifesto drafted in 1964, was left ambiguous."
A legal opinion issued by the nonpartisan Israeli group Peace Watch, which monitors compliance with the Oslo Accords, analyzed the PLO's action: "The [PLO's]decision fails to meet the obligations laid out in the Oslo Accords in two respects," Peace Watch said.
"First, the actual amendment of the covenant has been left for a future date. As of now, the old covenant, in its original form, remains the governing document of the PLO, and will continue in this status until the amendments are actually approved…There is a sharp difference between calling for something to change and actually implementing the changes. Second, the decision does not specify which clauses will be amended."
Perhaps most significant was how the covenant issue was portrayed by the Palestinian Arab media and by the PLO itself. After all, the primary danger that the covenant poses is that it legitimizes hatred of Israel and delegitimizes Israel's right to exist. Changing the covenant is important in order to send a message to the Arab people that anti-Israel violence is immoral and must cease.
However, the official PLO news agency, WAFA, in its statement about the vote, did not say that anything in the covenant has been changed. Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, head of the PLO delegation in Madrid and currently a prominent member of the PNC, said the PNC "did not formally change the covenant" but merely empowered a legal committee to deal with the issue. Shafi said that when the PNC made its decision it "had just two of the articles in mind" — even though 30 of the Covenant's 33 articles call for Israel's destruction or urge violence against Israel.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Arab newspapers Al Quds and Al Ayyam and the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a prominent Palestinian Arab news agency, have reported that the covenant "will be amended" some time in the future. None of the Arab media have cited specific articles in the covenant that have been changed or that will be changed.
Interestingly, PNC spokesman Sufian Abu Zaida, speaking on Israel Radio, claimed that the entire covenant had been "canceled." But when asked "which document now serves in its place, he replied, "the Algiers declaration," a 1988 PNC revolution that did not recognize Israel's right to exist.
What did the PLO vote on the covenant actually mean? Arafat and the PLO have once again made a vague promise to change some unspecified part of the covenant at some unspecified future date.
As Likud Knesset member Ze'ev "Benny" Begin put it, "Their language referred to an act that might take place in the future, but they did not take any action now. If I say I am going to the movies, that is not the same as saying that I went to the movies."
If the PLO sincerely wanted to change the covenant, it would have simply changed the 30 individual articles that call for Israel's destruction or urge violence. Now the Arab media and PNC members are telling the Palestinian Arab public that the covenant has not been changed and that, at most, only a few of the offending articles may one day be changed.
This was an historic opportunity for Arafat to send a message to the Arab world that the goal of destroying Israel has been explicitly abandoned. But once again, he has failed.
As Yigal Carmon, former adviser on counterterrorism to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, observed after the vote, "The PLO finally made a historic decision: to postpone it again."