Plo Vote On Israel's Right To Exist Helps Both Sides -- Arafat And Peres Get Boost From Panel's `Historic' Action
JERUSALEM - By formally ending their armed struggle against Israel, the Palestinians have gone a long way toward erasing doubts about Yasser Arafat's sincerity and restarted a peace process stalled by deadly suicide bombings.
The decision to delete anti-Israel clauses from the Palestine Liberation Organization's charter also provided a major boost for Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Israel in his quest to retain his job in May 29 elections.
Right-wing Israelis had made much of the fact that the charter advocated armed struggle to establish a Palestinian state in all of what is now Israel. But with the vote yesterday to formally end that struggle, their objections to peacemaking lost steam.
"This is a meaningful change with historic dimensions, the greatest ideological change of this century," said Peres, who called Arafat on the telephone to congratulate him.
Israel is also expected to remove troops from most of Hebron - the last West Bank city it occupies - and go ahead with talks next month with the PLO on explosive issues including Palestinian refugees and the future of disputed Jerusalem.
Arafat, in turn, solidified his rule when the Palestinians' highest body voted overwhelmingly to amend the charter. The sweeping 504-54 victory gives the Palestinian leader greater leverage in confronting the Islamic militant groups that sent out suicide bombers in an effort to wreck peace.
Arafat said the decision was a victory for the nascent Palestinian democracy and for peacemaking. "This is a success for the peace process," he told Cable News Network.
The vote in the Palestine National Council - tantamount to a formal recognition of the state of Israel - takes the Palestinians themselves a step closer to statehood.
Peres had said that if Arafat met his promise to have the charter amended, Israel would start negotiating a final peace agreement with the Palestinians on May 4.
Under their peace accord, the two sides have three years to reach agreement on the future of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. The Palestinians hope the outcome of the talks will be a Palestinian state.
If Peres is re-elected, that may very well be the case. In a sign that it was softening its position, Peres' Labor Party prepared to vote today on a new platform that would scrap a clause opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Arafat himself presented that simple choice to Palestine National Council delegates this week. Yelling at hard-liners poised to vote "no," Arafat said that if the charter was not amended, the Palestinians would miss their last real hope for independence.
Peres, meanwhile, is under growing pressure from the Palestinians - especially after yesterday's vote - to ease the stifling 2-month-old closure of the West Bank and Gaza, imposed after the suicide bombings began Feb. 25. The closure bars 2 million Palestinians from Israel and has plunged the Palestinian economy into crisis.
If Peres decides to lift some of the travel restrictions, it increases the probability that Islamic militants will sneak into Israel to launch new attacks. The Islamic Hamas group vowed last week to carry out five new attacks to avenge Israel's military offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
New violence ahead of the elections could wipe out the gains Peres has made in recent weeks over hard-line challenger Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud Party.
The Palestinians also demand that Peres pull Israeli troops out of parts of Hebron, the last Palestinian city still under occupation. The withdrawal was to have been completed by March 28, but Peres postponed it after the bombings.
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