Who drew it up?
The Palestinian "parliament", the Palestine National Council (PNC), adopted the charter in 1964, revised it four years later, amended it in 1974 and re-affirmed it in 1977. In an attempt to grant it a more serious, sacrosanct status, the document was renamed the Palestinian National Covenant, (al-mithaq al-watani al-filastini). It is important to note that the charter--and indeed the PLO itself--predates the Israeli conquest of Judea-Samaria and Gaza. The "Palestine" it referred to was thus today's "green-line" Israel.
What does it say?
The charter comprises 33 clauses, calling for self-determination for the "Palestinian Arab people" in Palestine, an area to which they have "material, spiritual and historical" ties.
Those entitled to lay claim to this land include "Arab citizens who were living permanently in Palestine until 1947" as well as anyone "born to a Palestinian Arab father after this date, within Palestine or outside it". Jews who lived in Palestine before 1917 "will be considered Palestinians".
It decries the "Zionist occupation", the "Zionist imperialist invasion" and the "Zionist presence" in Palestine.
The document is crammed with rhetoric. Palestinians are to be brought up "in an Arab and revolutionary fashion", being prepared for "the conflict and the armed struggle", which is "the only way to liberate Palestine".
The charter calls for the "mobilisation of all the masses and scientific capacities of the Palestinians … to guarantee the continuation of the revolution, its advancement and victory."
Article 19 says the "establishment of Israel is fundamentally null and void … because it was contrary to the wish of the people of Palestine". Also "null and void" is the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain in 1917 said it favoured the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
Article 20 says "the claim of a historical or spiritual tie between Jews and Palestine does not tally with historical realities …"
Another offensive article, #22, says "Zionism is a political movement organically related to world imperialism and hostile to all movements of liberation and progress in the world. It is a racist and fanatical movement in its formation: aggressive, expansionist and colonialist in its aims; and fascist and Nazi in its means. Israel is the tool of the Zionist movement and a human and geographical base for world imperialism. It is a concentration and jumping-off point for imperialism in the heart of the Arab homeland, to strike at the hopes of the Arab nation for liberation, unity and progress."
Who is entitled to amend the charter?
The final article of the charter (#33) says: "This covenant cannot be amended except by a two-thirds majority of all the members of the National Assembly of the PLO [ie: the PNC] in a special session called for this purpose."
Yasser Arafat first promised to amend the charter in September 1993, shortly before the signing of the first interim peace agreement with Israel.
In a critically-important letter to the late PM Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat wrote: "The PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist, and the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter are now inoperative and no longer valid. Consequently, the PLO undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council for formal approval the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant."
On the basis of the commitments Arafat made in that letter, Rabin went on to sign the peace agreement initiating the process leading to Palestinian self-rule. Yet five years later, Israel says this undertaking has not been met.
Israel's position is that it cannot regard as a trusted peace partner an organisation which doesn't have the will, or the authority, to meet this basic demand. (Israel's agreement to deal with the PLO, and the PLO's recognition of Israel's right to exist, were the cornerstones of the Oslo process.)
And Netanyahu insists that the charter, as its own wording makes clear, can only be changed by two-thirds of the PNC.
The PA's position
Despite the assurance he gave to Rabin in 1993, Arafat did nothing about amending the charter for two years. Then, under increased pressure to fulfil the obligation, Arafat promised in August 1995 that the required changes would be made within two months of the first Palestinian elections, scheduled for January 20, 1996.
The following month, Israel and the PA signed Oslo II, which again contained the PA undertaking to amend the charter. In appealing to the Knesset to ratify the agreement, Rabin told members he saw the charter issue as the central test of the whole agreement.
Three months after the Palestinian elections, the PNC finally convened. On April 24, the media reported that the body had finally voted to amend the charter. Israel's Labour government rejoiced; the Clinton administration approved. But what really happened, as The Jerusalem Post reported it the next day, was this: "The vote did not actually change the covenant, but gave authority to a PNC legal committee to do so or to draw up a completely new charter within six months."
That deadline passed, with no evidence of the panel ever convening.
When Israel--this time under a Likud government--negotiated the agreement to cede most of Hebron to the PA in January 1997--Netanyahu ensured that the PA's undertaking to amend its charter was again included in the document signed. The US endorsed the Hebron Protocol, effectively admitting that its earlier assessment that the charter had been changed was incorrect.
Since then, Arafat has sent the Clinton administration a letter naming the clauses of the charter which it says have been scrapped or rewritten. But to this day, there has been no subsequent meeting of the PNC to vote on an amended or new charter. Neither has any amended or new charter ever been made public. It's widely believed in Israel that no such document exists. (Asked when the world would see a copy of the amended charter, Arafat told a Washington press conference in March 1887: "When Israel gets a constitution, we will show the charter".)
So why won't Arafat rewrite it?
Does Arafat not want to change the charter, for ideological reasons? Or does he simply not believe it possible?
One view is that Arafat remains committed to the "phased plan" concept adopted by the PNC in 1974, which called for a strategic use of any territory "liberated" from Israel to pursue the goals of achieving a state in the whole of Palestine (by the destruction of Israel in stages). If this is so, then Arafat would not want to modify the blueprint for the Palestinians' eventual victory over Israel. On a number of occasions since signing the Oslo Accords, Arafat has told audiences in Arabic that he still holds to the "phased" approach.
Another possibility is that Arafat knows he cannot muster the necessary support in the 669-member PNC to make the changes. In the April 1996 PNC session, 75 per cent had voted in favour of the proposal. But lengthy delays in the Oslo process have arguably pushed some mainstream PLO members towards a more hardline position--particularly in an environment where the Islamist group Hamas (which is not represented on the PNC) is enjoying growing popular support. Likewise, the election of the Netanyahu government may have strengthened the hand of the rejectionist forces in the PNC too. In early November, leaders of 10 radical groups met in Damascus to announce that they would boycott any meeting called by the PA to change the charter. Even the PLO's dissident "Foreign Minister", Farouk Khaddoumi, backed the call not to amend the charter.
A failure to achieve the two-thirds vote needed would not just be an embarrassment for the ailing Arafat. It could--if Israel sticks to its guns on this point--spell the end of the Oslo process.