Amending the PLO Covenant: An Unfulfilled Commitment

[Government Press Office (Israel), Jerusalem, January, 1997]

Executive Summary

The Agreement: In his exchange of letters with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on September 9, 1993, at the beginning of the Oslo process, Chairman Yasser Arafat undertook a commitment to amend the PLO Covenant.

Two years later, the Covenant had still not been changed, but a deadline was fixed in the Interim Agreement (Oslo 2) of September 28, 1995. Under Oslo 2, the PLO was obligated to change the Covenant no later than two months after the inauguration of the elected Palestinian Council. Since the Council was inaugurated on March 7, 1996, the deadline for the PLO to amend the Covenant was May 7, 1996.

The PNC Resolution: The resolution adopted on April 24, 1996 by the Palestinian National Council (PNC) merely declared a readiness to change the Covenant. The only practical step taken was the empowerment of a legal committee to draft a new version of the document. The PNC resolution failed to specify which articles were changed, how they were changed or when the changes will go into effect.

On several occasions, the Palestinians have asserted that a legal committee was working on a new draft of the document. To date, no new version of the Covenant has been submitted to the PNC.

In the Note for the Record which accompanied the January 15, 1997 Hebron Protocol, the PLO again reaffirmed its commitment to "Complete the process of revising the Palestinian National Charter." In agreeing to this, the PLO was implicitly admitting that it had previously failed to change the Covenant.

The Covenant has served as the PLO's manifesto for over three decades. It calls for Israel's destruction and runs counter to the Oslo Accords' rejection of violence. It must be repudiated and amended if the Oslo Accords are to have any meaning.

Conclusion: While the PNC resolution on the Covenant may be seen as a first step toward compliance with the PLO's obligation, it failed to make the necessary changes and failed to satisfy the terms of the Oslo Accords. Hence, the PLO has been in violation of Chairman Arafat's commitment to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and in violation of its specific commitment to change the Covenant by the May 7, 1996 deadline.

Amending the PLO Covenant: An Unfulfilled Commitment

I. The Agreement

One of the explicit commitments undertaken by the PLO at the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993 was a pledge to amend the Palestinian National Covenant.

In his exchange of letters with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on September 9, 1993, Chairman Yasser 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."

Two years later, the Covenant had still not been changed, but a deadline was fixed in the Interim Agreement (Oslo 2) signed in Washington, DC on September 28, 1995:

"The PLO undertakes that, within two months of the date of the inauguration of the Council, the Palestinian National Council will convene and formally approve the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant, as undertaken in the letters signed by the Chairman of the PLO and addressed to the Prime Minister of Israel, dated September 9, 1993 and May 4, 1994" (Article XXXI (9)).

The elected Council, which came into being after the Palestinian elections of January 20, 1996, was formally inaugurated on March 7, 1996. Thus, under the terms of the Oslo Accords the PLO was obligated to amend the Covenant no later than May 7, 1996.

On January 15, 1997, eight months after the passage of the May 7, 1996 deadline, Israel and the PLO signed the Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron. In the Note for the Record which accompanied the Protocol, the PLO again reaffirmed its commitment to "Complete the process of revising the Palestinian National Charter."

With regard to the requisite changes to the Covenant, the criteria are those referred to in Chairman Arafat's letter above. Specifically, articles which deny Israel's right to exist, or run counter to the PLO's other commitments in Arafat's letter, such as the renunciation of violence and terror, must be changed.

II. The PNC Resolution

On April 24, 1996, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) convened in Gaza and adopted a resolution concerning the Covenant by a vote of 504 to 54 with 14 abstentions. Translated from the Arabic, the text of the resolution read as follows:

"It has been decided upon:

  • Amending the National Charter by cancelling the articles that are contrary to the letters exchanged between the PLO and the Government of Israel, on September 9 and 10, 1993.
  • The empowerment of a legal committee with the task of redrafting the National Charter. The Charter will be presented to the first meeting of the Central Council."

III. Why the PNC Resolution is Insufficient

The PNC resolution regarding the Covenant is ambiguous and inadequate insofar as the demands of the Oslo Accords are concerned. The two primary failings of the resolution are as follows:

A. Failure to Actually Change the Covenant

The pivotal problem with the PNC resolution is that it did not alter the Covenant. While the PNC declared its readiness in principle to change the document, the only practical step taken was the empowerment of a legal committee to draft a new Covenant for presentation at an unspecified future date. Since the Covenant is a legally binding written document, amending it is not simply a matter of declaring a willingness to alter it, but necessitates the actual adoption and implementation of changes to the document. No such changes were made by the PNC.

Immediately prior to the vote, PNC Chairman Salim Zaanoun made clear to the assembled delegates that the choice before them was between amending the Covenant or delaying the process by six months by deciding to draft a new proposal. The PNC, he said, had decided to adopt the latter option:

"We must fulfill the commitment demanded at the lowest possible price. Therefore it was said that if we amend those articles whose amendment is demanded, it will mean that we have paid a very high price, and if we prepare a new proposal it will be less damaging. The proposal which was drafted is the least damaging that we could submit. It gives us an extension of 6 months until the Central Council convenes."

That the PNC did not amend the Covenant was confirmed immediately after the vote by PLO spokesman Marwan Kanafani, who told reporters in a videotaped interview that, "This is not an amendment. This is a license to start a new charter."

Other PLO officials echoed the sentiment that the Covenant had not been changed. PLO Executive Committee member Sakhr Habash said, "the text of the charter remains as it is since it has not been amended yet. Therefore, it is frozen, not cancelled." (An-Nahar, May 5, 1996) An internal report published shortly after the PNC vote by the Research and Thought Department of Chairman Arafat's Fatah faction of the PLO contained a similar determination. The report stated, "The text of the Palestinian National Covenant remains as it was and no changes whatsoever were made to it. This has caused it to be frozen, but not annulled."

The PNC itself failed to make any mention of changing the Covenant in its closing statement. At the close of its session, on April 25, the PNC published a concluding document summarizing its activity. The statement included 19 specific resolutions and decisions on subjects ranging from Jerusalem to Israeli settlements, but contained no reference to any decision to amend the Covenant. (Al-Quds, April 26, 1996; Voice of Palestine, April 26, 1996)

B. No Specifics Concerning Changes Made

Another crucial problem is that the PNC resolution fails to specify which particular articles were changed, how they were changed or when the changes will go into effect. Indeed, even Palestinian officials appear to be unsure regarding the number of articles amended.

PNC Chairman Selim Zaanoun asserted that the Covenant had been amended but acknowledged that "there are no specific articles" which were cancelled. (An-Nahar, May 16, 1996) By contrast, Sufian Abu Zaidah, head of the PA's Israel desk, claimed that all 33 of the Covenant's articles had been "cancelled" and that it had been replaced by the PNC's 1988 Algiers declaration. (interview with Israel Radio, April 25, 1996)

PA Planning Minister Nabil Shaath said after the vote that 16 articles had been altered while other PNC members claimed that 4, 7 or 10 articles had been changed (Jerusalem Post, May 1, 1996).

Faisal Hamdi Husseini, head of the PNC's judicial committee, said on May 5 that he would submit a new Covenant for approval at a later date in which 21 articles would be changed or cancelled, thereby implying that none had actually been amended. (Jerusalem Post, May 6, 1996)

If no one can state with certainty how many, or even which, articles were changed, then it is clear that the process of amending the Covenant remains incomplete.

IV. Practical Measures Since the PNC Vote

Since the PNC decision of April 24, 1996, the Palestinians have declared on several occasions that a legal committee was working on a new draft of the document.

On April 28, Chairman Arafat was reported to have issued a "presidential decree" instructing the PNC legal committee to draft a new version of the Covenant in accordance with the PNC decision. (Voice of Palestine, April 28, 1996) A month later, PNC Chairman Salim Zaanoun claimed that the PNC legal committee was working on preparing a new Covenant. (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 23, 1996)

These declarations notwithstanding, no practical measures are known to have been taken thus far. Immediately prior to the PNC vote, Zaanoun declared that a new version of the Covenant would be completed in six months, by October 24, 1996. Subsequently, Faisal Hamdi Husseini, head of the PNC's judicial committee, said in early May 1996 that he would submit a new Covenant for approval in three months, in August 1996, which would incorporate changes to the document. (Jerusalem Post, May 6, 1996)

In October 1996, senior PA official Abu Mazen told a Russian newspaper that a new version of the Covenant would be published "in another half a year," meaning in April 1997. (Novoya Vremya, October 1, 1996)

To date, no new version of the Covenant has yet been submitted to, or approved by, the PNC.

In the Note for the Record which accompanied the January 15, 1997 Hebron Protocol, the PLO again reaffirmed its commitment to "Complete the process of revising the Palestinian National Charter." In agreeing to this, the PLO was implicitly admitting that it had previously failed to change the Covenant, otherwise there would be no need to "complete the process of revising" it.

V. Why Amending the Covenant is Important

The Palestinian National Covenant is the founding charter of the PLO, delineating the organization's stated aims and goals. It was adopted at the PNC's first session in 1964, and attained its present format in 1968 at the PNC's fourth session in Cairo.

The Covenant contains numerous articles which explicitly or implicitly deny Israel's right to exist and reject any peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, Article 19 states, "The partitioning of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of Israel are fundamentally null and void, whatever time has elapsed " Article 22 asserts that, "the liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence and will contribute to the establishment of peace in the Middle East ."

The Covenant also denies the existence of the Jewish people as a nation and any ties that it might have to the Land of Israel (Article 20). It declares that "armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine and is therefore a strategy and not tactics" (Article 9).

For nearly three decades, the PLO engaged in acts of violence and terror against Israel, with the Covenant serving as the organization's manifesto. Since the conceptual foundation of the Oslo Accords is the rejection of violence as a tool in the conduct of bilateral relations, it is particularly important that the ideas contained in the Covenant be wholly and publicly repudiated and altered.

VI. Conclusion

While the PNC resolution on the Covenant may be seen as a first step toward compliance with the PLO's obligation, it failed to make the necessary changes and failed to satisfy the terms of the Oslo Accords. Hence, the PLO has been in violation of Chairman Arafat's commitment to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and in violation of its specific commitment to change the Covenant by the May 7, 1996 deadline.