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Israel Permits Return of PLO Exiles--Including Terrorists

Mideast: Palestinians are allowed back to vote on repeal of charter clause that calls for destruction of the Jewish state.


JERUSALEM — The document was written decades ago, but Israelis today still view the Palestine Liberation Organization's national covenant as a rifle trained between their eyes, and they want it eliminated.

To that end, the Israeli government has agreed to let 154 members of the PLO's parliament-in-exile enter the Palestinian self-rule area, a government official said Tuesday.

Israel hopes that they will vote to remove clauses in the charter that call for the destruction of the Jewish state.

The Palestinian National Council members allowed to return include many opponents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and notorious terrorists of the 1970s, such as airplane hijacker Leila Khaled.

Shlomo Dror, a spokesman for the Israeli government's office for activities in the Palestinian-ruled Gaza Strip and West Bank, said Khaled and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's political foes were on a list of names of council members who had asked to return. The list was submitted to Israel by Arafat.

"The government has decided every member of the PNC [council] may come in. Arafat promised to change the covenant, and we are trying to help him do that," Dror said.

Arafat apparently still has tough negotiations ahead to garner the two-thirds majority vote he needs to amend the PLO's charter.

But some political observers say the imminent return of so-called rejectionists of the peace process signals that Arafat will succeed--and most likely before Israeli national elections that on Tuesday were set for May 29--giving a boost to Prime Minister Shimon Peres' election bid.

In exchange for the clauses calling for Israel's destruction, however, political analysts expect the Palestinians to add other articles that are sure to irk Israel, calling for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

"Given the attitudes of both Arafat and the opposition since the [Palestinian] elections, I have no doubt . . . the decision is taken to change the covenant," said political scientist Menachem Klein, an authority on the PLO at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

In the revised charter, Klein added, "The Palestinians will lay down their political demands, which they will put on the bargaining table next May."

Israel and the Palestinians are to begin final peace negotiations in May to address such outstanding issues as Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian statehood.

Peres insists that he will halt the peace process unless Arafat fulfills his commitment to amend the charter under a 460-page accord he signed with Israel's Yitzhak Rabin in Washington in September, six weeks before Rabin was assassinated.

Arafat's failure to do so could lose Peres the election.

Members of the Israeli opposition still consider Arafat a terrorist, and they say he cannot be serious about peace as long as his organization continues to call for the destruction of Israel.

This is an issue that touches an emotional chord in a country that has long viewed itself as under siege by hostile Arabs.

Many Palestinians, meanwhile, see the charter amendment as one of their last big cards in negotiations with Israel.

Some members of the newly elected Palestinian Authority legislature say they will not comply with the peace agreement until Israel upholds all its commitments, such as releasing all Palestinian prisoners and opening roads for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank.

Some members have gone further, suggesting that they will not recognize Israel's right to exist before Israel recognizes the Palestinian's right to statehood with a capital in Jerusalem.

Arafat, however, is an old hand at back-room negotiations, and political observers expect him to trade everything from seats in his Cabinet to a commitment to democracy and political pluralism in order to get the votes he needs.

The exact number of members of the PLO's council is in question and may, in fact, be determined by Arafat's need for a two-thirds majority, observers say. There were 486 registered participants at the last council meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, in 1991, but about 20 of those have since died.

At one time, the PLO said it would add 182 Palestinians living inside the territories to the council of exiles.

Arafat said the 89 members of the Palestinian Authority's legislative council that was elected last month would be part of the PNC. In any case, there is considerable overlap in the groups, starting with Arafat himself.

Dror, the government spokesman, said he expects Arafat to submit another list of between 100 and 200 council members who want to return.

It is unclear if this list will include hard-core opponents such as George Habash, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine--groups that boycotted the Palestinian elections last month and found themselves politically isolated after a massive voter turnout.

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