JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- The new Palestinian government, not yet even firmly in place, already is caught up in controversy over Israel's surprise offer to permit the return of hundreds of Palestinians it once branded terrorists.
On the heels of Saturday's first Palestinian election, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres threw down a challenge to the Palestinians to uphold their pledge to revoke portions of a 1968 charter calling for the destruction of Israel.
To enable them to do so, Mr. Peres said Israel would permit the return to the West Bank and Gaza Strip of all members of the old Palestinian National Council, which includes some of Israel's most notorious foes.
The announcement provoked a storm of criticism by Israel's opposition right wing. And it thrust newly elected members of the Palestinian Council, which would have to join in the charter repeal, into an unaccustomed role as a player in diplomatic hardball.
Even former President Jimmy Carter was startled by the move. Opening the doors to the PNC members is "a momentous decision -- many members were officially branded as terrorists," he said last night as he concluded his stint as an international observer of the Palestinian election.
Since the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in 1993, Israel has allowed exiled Palestinians to return, but it has never extended such blanket permission to its enemies.
Mr. Carter said the election was "basically good," despite some reservations about both Israeli and Palestinian actions. Carl Lidbom, head of the European Union's observers, also concluded yesterday that the election was "reasonably free."
Yet even as they spoke positively about the election, new complications arose in certification of the final results.
There were reports that ballot boxes were missing and then found. Ballots at two polls in the Gaza Strip were held uncounted because of fights at one and "chaos" at another, said Central Elections Commission spokeswoman Daniela Khalaf. Palestinian police said a fight at a Gaza Strip polling place left two wounded, and in another incident, a Palestinian policeman shot and killed a poll official after arguing Saturday.
Final results released by the Central Election Commission late yesterday gave Mr. Arafat 88.1 percent of the votes and his opponent Samiha Khalil 9.3 percent. Invalid votes totaled 2.6 percent, officials said. The turnout was estimated at 70 percent of the 1 million registered voters.
Israel television compiled a list of expected winners from election observer figures, showing a council heavily weighted with Mr. Arafat's supporters. The council would include 50 members of Mr. Arafat's Fatah party, another 15 "independents" associated with Fatah, about 13 real independents and six Islamic candidates. It would also include seven women, Israel television said.
Although the council was expected to be supportive of Mr. Arafat, the makeup seemed certain to include a core of those who might challenge the new president and question his policies. The most prominent among them are Hanan Ashrawi and physician Haider Abdel-Shafi, both former negotiators turned sometime-critics of Mr. Arafat.
The council members will be quickly confronted with the issue of changing the Palestinian National Council charter. Mr. Arafat had promised to amend the charter 60 days after the election, but had recently been expressing reservations about whether he would be able to muster the two-thirds majority of the PNC to do so.
The charter was enacted in 1968 by the PNC, a sort of appointed parliament in exile. For years, the membership and even the exact size of the PNC -- now said to be about 450 members -- was kept secret, in part because it was branded an official terrorist organization and Israel jailed or expelled Palestinians revealed to be members.
The membership includes terrorist masterminds, including George Habash, who orchestrated a series of airplane hijackings in the 1970s; Nayif Hawatmeh, whose group carried out a 1974 massacre at an Israeli school; and Abu Abbas, whose group carried out the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. Most of those and 250 to 300 others in the PNC have been barred from returning to the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
The charter, adopted four years after the PNC was formed, calls for "commando action" as "the only way to liberate Palestine" and requires "the elimination of Zionism in Palestine."
The Palestinians' willingness or reluctance to amend the charter has become an emotional issue in Israel, despite the signing of the 1993 peace agreement.
"You cannot demand a change of the covenant unless you let those who must decide an opportunity to come and decide," Mr. Peres said in defending his decision.
Members of the Israeli opposition Likud party reacted in outrage to the move. Knesset member Benny Begin called it an "abominable" decision that "is making my government crawl."
The most-wanted PNC members are not expected to risk returning, however. Mr. Habash, in the Syrian capital Damascus, has refused.
The invitation by Mr. Peres was seen as a strategic move to remove an excuse from the Palestinians for not amending the charter. But members of the newly elected council may not be so swayed by the move. Jonathan Kuttab, who is expected to fill a council seat from Jerusalem, said the new members may demand some concessions from Israel for agreeing to amend the charter.
Mr. Arafat already promised the amendment, but "he signed that, not us," Mr. Kuttab said. Palestinian leader Faisal al-Husseini recently suggested that the Palestinians would abide their pledge only if Israel abided by all of its promises in negotiations.
The new council and Mr. Arafat will be sworn in after the month-long Muslim Ramadan holiday that began Saturday night.
Mr. Carter, in assessing the Palestinian election, said he remained critical of the massive Israeli police presence around Arab East Jerusalem voting stations.
"I think there were very serious problems. On the other hand, as soon as I brought these matters to the attention of top Israeli officials, almost all of them were corrected," Mr. Carter said.