Palestinians performing magic tricks with words

On Israel's Independence Day this year, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) met to discuss the abolition of clauses in the Palestinian Covenant calling for Israel's destruction — or so the issue was depicted in the media both in Israel and abroad.

As the day's session closed, the PNC issued a resolution that had two points: to amend the covenant by abolishing articles that contradict letters exchanged between Israel and the PLO in September 1993; to commission the legal committee to rephrase the covenant and present it to the Central Council in its first meeting.

This resolution, however, was dropped from the list of resolutions taken by the PNC. In Palestinian eyes, it did not seem especially important. In Israel, however, it was hailed immediately as "a historic revolution" and "the Palestinian present to Israel on its Independence Day" — and even "the most important decision in the last hundred years."

In fact this decision is not "revolutionary," nor does it say more than what is written in its text. It proves again that the Arabs are magicians with words, and that in Israel the hunger to swiftly pay for nonexistent merchandise costs otherwise intelligent people their clarity of judgment.

In Oslo, in Washington, D.C., and in Cairo, the Palestinians have undertaken to abolish those articles in the covenant that call for Israel's destruction, either directly or indirectly. By nature and content, the whole of the Palestinian Covenant, adopted in 1964, means the destruction of Israel.

What could be clearer than mentioning these articles one by one and declaring them null and void, thus convincing Israel that the Palestinian side is serious? But Yasser Arafat and his council decided on a different strategy. They used ambiguous terminology that turns this matter into an issue for debate.

By not mentioning specific articles, the Palestinians are now free to decide which sections seem to disagree with the letters exchanged in Oslo. They say there is only one such article, possibly two; Israel says there are at least 17 specific articles that must be abolished, otherwise the covenant cannot be called "amended."

In the good old tradition of the Oriental market, the issue is now open for bargaining.

But there is more to it. The second paragraph of the decision calls upon the PNC's legal committee to deal with amending the covenant. Nobody has yet seen how the new covenant will look.

But meanwhile the Palestinians' clever ambiguity seems to be paying off.

Some Israelis — not necessarily right-wingers — shouted that the emperor was naked. And some fine scholars employed an almost talmudic style of reasoning to prove that the PNC's choice of terminology means the entire covenant was abolished.

But the PNC has no intention to depart from the main principles imbedded in all 33 articles of the Palestinian Covenant.

This can easily be proven by looking at the PNC's decisions in their wider context: Consider, for instance, Arafat's speech at the start of the meeting. Arafat spoke about the international legal basis of the Palestinian demands and decisions, adding that the final goal of the current political activity is the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

After repeating the final sentence three times, Arafat abandoned his written text and shouted: "Whether they like it or not, and whoever does not like it, let him drink the sea of Gaza."

I would not have given much weight to the matter of the covenant had not Israel's negotiators and media turned this into such a major issue. Even if the covenant were to be abolished outright, it would not mean much, because its abolition could easily be reversed by the PNC.

In the Middle East, it is more common to violate agreements than to honor them.

The Palestinian Covenant's true nature is especially clear when examined against the background of Oslo, the IDF's withdrawal from major Palestinian cities and the Israeli government's generosity to the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Israeli, American and European taxpayers.

In any normal state of affairs, negotiations would not even have begun between two parties while one party continued adhering to principles that denied the other party's right to exist.

Israel has been teaching its Arab neighbors a new lesson in diplomacy. It is ready to pay the Arabs a high price if they say, even in general terms, that they are considering adjustments in the wording behind their wish to see Israel disappear.

This, more or less, is what the PNC decided on Israel's Independence Day this year.