PLO DROPS ANTI-ISRAEL REFERENCES.
The Palestine National Council formally revoked on Wednesday clauses of the PLO's founding charter that call for the destruction of Israel, living up to a historic commitment with Israel and opening the way to negotiate a final peace accord between the two former enemies.
The council, meeting in the Gaza Strip, voted 504-54 with 14 abstentions for the change, heeding a call by PLO leader Yasser Arafat who had warned of the consequences of failing to uphold the promise made when he and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to seek peace in September 1993.
``Make up your minds. . . . Are we going to have a Palestinian dream or not, are we going to have statehood or not?'' Arafat demanded of the council members, many of whom came to Gaza from exile for this meeting. ``We don't want to go astray again, we don't want to begin again from less than zero.''
The vote took place in a closed session. When it was over, Marwan Kanafani, a former Arafat spokesman and now a member of the Palestinian parliament, declared it ``a new era in the life of the Palestinians.''
Seven articles removed from the 30-year-old charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization had called for armed struggle to ``liberate Palestine'' and destroy the state of Israel, a goal that the PLO had all but abandoned since agreeing in recent years to work toward peaceful co-existence with Israel.
But these are acutely difficult times for Israeli-Palestinian relations, and each side kept its reactions and explanations subdued. Israel suffered four devastating suicide bombs last month and reacted by closing off the borders of the Palestinian autonomous areas.
Mahmoud Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, a chief architect of Israeli-Palestinian peace, said Wednesday night, ``We did not amend the charter for the sake of Israel. We did so for the sake of peace.''
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres issued a statement affirming that the PLO had now lived up to its 1993 commitment but did not even go so far as to praise it for the move.
Yoel Esteron, managing editor of the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz, said the story would lead his paper today across six of nine columns but he personally felt no need to express optimism or satisfaction about it.
``It's nice,'' he said, when asked his reaction. ``But, frankly, it was about time.''
The cool mood comes also from Israel's ongoing two-week-old incursion into southern Lebanon in efforts to root out guerrilla bases of the Hezbollah. Israelis in the north are sleeping in bomb shelters because of Hezbollah Katyusha rockets and Lebanese civilians are suffering Israel air and artillery raids.
Even Shulamit Aloni, a leftist member of Peres' government, said only: ``Well, I am very glad because now there will be no excuse to stop continuing the peace process.''
Peres had said that until the charter was revoked Israel would not begin the promised negotiations on the final status of the accord, notably the difficult issues of Jerusalem, final borders and Jewish settlements in the Palestinian areas.
The PLO charter, written in the stilted, grandiose style of Third World revolutionary tracts of the 1960s, was drafted to affirm the right of Palestinians to the entire land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and to delegitimize all Jewish and Zionist claims to it.
As such, it calls for ``armed struggle'' to liberate Palestine, speaks of the ``Zionist and imperialist aggression against the Arab homeland'' and says that the U.N. decision to partition this area in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are ``entirely illegal regardless of the passage of time.''
Already in the 1970s, the PLO began edging away from such views, hinting at a willingness to accept Israel if there were a Palestine next to it. In the late 1980s, Arafat denounced terrorism and in 1993 shook hands with Rabin on the White House lawn and committed himself in writing to accepting Israel.
But the Israelis felt that the PLO charter still justified guerrilla actions against Israel and that if the PLO were serious it had to revoke the offending passages.
This was more difficult than it seemed. Officially the Palestine National Council, a kind of parliament-in-exile, contains many PLO factions. Among them are those that opposed Arafat's return to Gaza under the 1993 agreement and that represent Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan who will not get back the land they lost when Israel was created in 1948.