Four days prior to the signing of the Declaration of Principles between the government of Israel and the PLO on September 13, 1993, Yasser Arafat conveyed in a letter to Prime Minister Rabin that "the PLO undertakes to submit to the Palestine National Council (PNC) for formal approval the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant". That document, formulated in 1964 and slightly altered in 1968, sets out the fundamental principles of PLO ideology, which includes "the elimination of Zionism Palestine" (Art 15) and the "illegal" character of the State of Israel (Art 19).
Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in November 1994, never lived to see Arafat introduce the promised changes to the PNC. Shimon Peres, his successor, claims that the April 1996 session of the PNC meeting in Gaza has indeed fulfilled the promise, while honest professional opinion deems that nothing of the kind occurred. The PLO perhaps stated its intentions to nullify these clauses of the covenant that call for Israel's destruction, but no more was concretely decided than to refer the matter to a committee. Ambiguity, in typical oriental fashion, is the political hallmark of Arab rhetoric toward Israel and peace-making.
The conundrum of the covenant does not basically lie with those clauses that directly deny Israel's right to existence. True, the call for "the liberation of Palestine" (Art 13) is irrevocably juxtaposed to the rejection of Israel's right to exist. In fact, the call for "liberating Palestine" appears in no less than eighteen of the covenant's thirty-three articles. To convincingly amend this covenant requires hardly less than its complete abandonment by the PLO.
The most central point to consider is, however, not even the glaring rejection of Israel, the inadmissibility of Zionism, and the imperative to liberate Palestine. It is the national question, both the Palestinian and Jewish one, that is the key regarding the PLO's position toward Israel.
Article 1 affirms the existence of the "Arab Palestinian people ... an integral part of the Arab nation". The existence of a Palestinian identity is, according to Article 5, "genuine" and "essential," but never truly explicated aside from being naturally considered to be "Arab" (Art 5). Articles 5 and 6 together equate the Jews of Palestine through the instrumentality of Arab identity. This is the thrust in Palestinian ideology to Arabise Jews who live in Palestine - or elsewhere in the Arab Middle East - and this is the first denial of Jewish peoplehood.
A second denial appears in Article 20, which declares that "Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality". That the Jews are just a religious community revokes any claim they otherwise might advance in the name of national self-determination. The same article continues by affirming that the Jews are no more than citizens of the world, but not a united or integral national people. And a non-people can hardly lay convincing claim to a state.
The PLO, having affirmed the existence of a Palestinian people, requires its counterpoint in the non-existence of the Jewish people. This is the covenant's handling or mishandling of the 'national question,' in order to underscore the right of Palestinian statehood and to nullify the right of the State of Israel.
To bolster this point, the PLO juxtaposes the link between people-hood and territoriality in the case of the "Palestinians" and the Jews. Article 7 states that the Palestinian community's "material, spiritual and historical connection with Palestine" is an indisputable fact, while in contrast, any claims of "historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history" (Art 20).
It should be clear that calling upon the PLO to amend its covenant regarding articles denying Israel's existence is unrealistic and certainly inadequate. Just as the PLO denies Israeli statehood, it also and even more fundamentally denies Jewish people-hood. The issue is deeper than mere politics.
Without resolving the 'national question,' the PLO can have no more magnanimous intention than granting Jews - whom they call "Zionist invaders" now ensconced in their "racist" but transitory state (Art 22) - the mere privilege of being an autonomous religious community in a future liberated Palestine. On this point the PLO and Hamas are in total agreement.
In the Declaration of Principles of 1993, the PLO, one party to the accord, is recognised as "representing the Palestinian people." The other party, "the Government of the State of Israel," does not, in the eyes of the PLO covenant, represent anything or anybody more than "Zionist aggression" (Art 15), expansionism, colonialism, and fascism (Art 22).
There cannot be peace in the Middle East so long as the PLO Covenant exists and stirs the hearts of Palestinians and their political supporters. In truth, so long as the PLO exists, peace is virtually an impossibility - this because the PLO unalterably stands for 'the Liberation of Palestine' without any Israel at all. This is the political logic of the argument: So long, indeed, as the PLO exists, Israel's existence is in danger. For the PLO exists solely for the purpose of undoing the existence of Israel. The truth is in the name: Palestine Liberation Organisation. It is as blatant and pernicious as that.
In 1993 the Israeli government signed an agreement with its executioner.
Dr. Mordechai Nisan is vice-president of the Foundation for Constitutional Democracy in the Middle East, and a teacher of Middle East Studies at the Rothberg School for Overseas Students of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.