For more than 31 years, the charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization has called for Israel’s destruction. Wednesday night, that fight officially ended.
Without debate, the Palestinian Parliament-in-exile voted 504-54 to revoke parts of the charter that call for armed struggle against Israel and the “liberation of Palestine.”
The vote was a tribute to PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s power, Israel’s pressure and the advancement of the peace process.
And the vote - on one level just a symbolic end to the Old Guard defiance against Israel - effectively may have signaled the end of the Palestine Liberation Organization as it once was.
“It’s important that the PLO has taken itself out of this historic conflict and written itself into history,” said Mark Heller, an Israeli political theorist who has studied the PLO. “It may be the last thing it will need to do.”
The Palestine National Council met in a closed-door session at the Shawwa Convention Center in Gaza City. The vote tally and the fact that the decision had been reached without debate were reported by Marwan Kanafani, a top council member and top Arafat aide.
“It’s surprising it happened so fast, but we don’t know what kind of pressure Arafat applied,” Heller said.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres had also applied pressure. He said if the PLO did not strike the anti-Israel parts of the charter, he would postpone the opening of the final status negotiations in the peace process, scheduled for May 4.
Those talks, which could span several years, will include the future of Jerusalem, the fate of more than three million Palestinian refugees and the question of an independent Palestinian state.
The charter lost much of its force when Arafat signed the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn in September 1993, ending decades of virtual war between the PLO and Israel. But Israel insisted the process would not be complete until the charter was amended.
Arafat resisted for more than two years. But when Peres agreed to the return of all members of the parliament-in-exile for the vote, Arafat moved quickly to shore up support.
Some of the staunchest supporters of an amended charter were some of the most notorious Palestinian guerrillas.
“We cannot go into the 21st century with a charter written from the the 1960s,” said Mamdouh Nofel, whose forces attempted 19 attacks against Israel, including a school massacre that killed 27 children in 1974. “We need a new charter that addresses and responds to the changes in the world and our area.”
The question now becomes: How does Israel respond? Before the fresh outbreak of fighting in south Lebanon two weeks ago, the common wisdom was that the amendment of the charter would boost Peres’ re-election chances May 29. Peres faces a tough battle against Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the fighting in Lebanon and the threat of more bus bombings in Israel by Arab extremists have overshadowed the Palestinian covenant.
Still, Peres has hinted that after the charter was changed he might withdraw Israeli troops from much of Hebron, the most contentious city in the West Bank and the only Arab city with Jewish settlers.
The troops were originally scheduled to pull out in late March, but Peres suspended that withdrawal after four bus bombings in late February and early March that killed 59 people.
Wednesday’s vote tacitly confirmed that the Palestinian leadership has abandoned the long-sought goal of taking over all of Israel, and has accepted the idea of sharing the land claimed by two ancient peoples. It was not clear how quickly ordinary Palestinians would give up the aspirations their leaders have encouraged for decades.
“It might take some time for those dreams to be fully abandoned,” said Hisham Ahmed, a Palestinian political scientist. “It’s the beginning stage.”