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PLO affirms change in charter regarding Israel

Arafat and Clinton
Arafat and Clinton at a January 22 meeting  
January 31, 1998
Web posted at: 11:23 p.m. EDT (2323 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- The PLO's Executive Committee issued a letter Saturday confirming that all paragraphs in the Palestinian Charter that call for the destruction of the state of Israel have been abolished.

But it was not clear whether the committee had voted to abolish the paragraphs. Israel Radio reported that a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "a delaying action."

The issue is one of the keys to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as she visits the Mideast.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has not been willing to reconvene the Palestine National Council to write a new charter, but he promised President Clinton at a January 22 meeting in Washington to have the Executive Committee confirm that the offending paragraphs have been abolished.

In April 1996, the Palestinian National Council decided to abrogate the Palestinian Charter, but Netanyahu's government has always contested that decision.

Israel has called for Palestinian leaders to reconvene the much larger Palestine National Council and write a new charter with specific references to which paragraphs of the charter have been abolished.

Whether or not the charter is still viable in Israel's eyes is a stumbling block for implementing the second deployment of Israeli troops from the West Bank.

A stumbling block

The Executive Committee convened Saturday, on the eve of scheduled talks between Albright and Arafat.

The Palestinian leadership also discussed the peace process in the wake of the Washington talks. The Palestinians now have jurisdiction over about one-quarter of the West Bank, including most Arab urban centers, and want Israel to move quickly ahead with promised pullbacks from large chunks of territory.

But Israel says it will not go ahead with any new withdrawals unless the Palestinians fulfill several conditions, mainly having to do with security. Netanyahu's government says Arafat has not done enough to crack down on Islamic militants.

The Clinton administration has proposed that Israeli pullbacks from the West Bank be broken up into stages, with withdrawals being made in exchange for specific Palestinian actions.

During 4 1/2 hours of talks with Netanyahu on Saturday, Albright went over the Clinton proposal that Israel withdraw its troops in stages synchronized with new Palestinian security measures.

Albright offered some "refinements" that U.S. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said could not be revealed -- at least not until she took them up with Arafat on Sunday in Ramallah, on the West Bank.

Iraqi shadow hangs over process

A complicating factor in any discussion of the peace process, however, is fear that Iraq could again fire missiles at Israel if Western nations make a military move against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

That possibility, and the possibility that Israel would retaliate, compound an already difficult situation for Albright, who wants Arab backing in the event of a U.S. attack on Iraq.

She discussed the situation with Netanyahu, but Rubin said afterward only that "we would continue to coordinate closely with Israel" and that Israel shared the U.S. objective that Saddam Hussein get rid of weapons of mass destruction.

"Israel is a close friend," Rubin added.

Albright had scheduled a news conference after her meeting with Netanyahu, but canceled it.

Iraq landed 39 Scud missiles in Israel in the 1991 Gulf war, killing 11 civilians. At the behest of the Bush administration, which wanted to maintain Arab support for the anti-Iraq coalition, Israel did not retaliate.

Netanyahu
Netanyahu  

Agreeing to a U.S. scenario for another West Bank pullback -- Israel has already turned over 27 percent of the territory to Arafat -- could be more than Netanyahu is willing to risk during the Iraq crisis. He stressed on a trip to Washington two weeks ago for talks with Clinton that giving up territory poses a danger for Israel, surrounded as it is by hostile neighbors.

Arafat insists the Palestinians are entitled to about 90 percent of the territory under the 1995 Oslo accord with Israel.

Administration officials would not say whether Albright would ask Netanyahu to not retaliate in the event of an Iraqi attack. In talking to reporters on the flight from London to Jerusalem, they insisted that pushing for a phased Israeli withdrawal was not designed to placate Arab leaders who disapprove of an attack on Iraq.

The two officials, who spoke under a promise of anonymity, insisted that Arafat is willing to consider Clinton's proposal for a phased Israeli troop pullback linked to security moves on his part.

Asked Wednesday in Gaza City whether he had agreed to such a scenario, Arafat said "definitely not." The U.S. officials said what the Palestinian leader was doing was withholding judgment on the details of a pullback.

They also said Albright was encouraged by discussions she had Friday night in London with King Hussein of Jordan. Hussein was an ally of Saddam during the Gulf War, but has criticized Saddam's government since.

The king, dependent largely on Iraq for Jordan's 90,000-barrel-a-day oil requirement, registered his "understanding" of the administration's stand to Albright, the officials said.

 
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