GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- With President Clinton standing among them, the Palestinian leaders voted yesterday to reaffirm the revocation of clauses in their charter that called for Israel's destruction, a move aimed at restoring the Middle East peace process.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who conditioned further progress in the peace process on the vote by the Palestinians, said he was satisfied with the action.
Clinton, Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were to hold a summit today at the Gaza-Israel border, to consolidate the events of the president's three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But a top aide to Netanyahu said the next Israeli troop withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, scheduled for Friday, would likely not occur because the Israeli Cabinet must first review the Palestinians' decision.
"The Cabinet has to meet and decide if the Palestinians are meeting their obligations before any redeployment is implemented," said David Bar-Illan, a chief aide to Netanyahu.
"There is no question none of the other violations have been corrected," he said, referring to the Palestinian leadership's commitment to contain anti-Israeli violence.
Bar-Illan said the Palestinian leaders acted to please Clinton, who attended the meeting as part of his efforts to break a deadlock in the peace process.
Until the last minute, it was unknown just how the Palestinian reaffirmation would take place, or whether it would satisfy the Israeli demand. During an address to the gathering, Arafat asked his comrades to reaffirm the 1996 Palestine National Council decision to delete the charter clauses that offend Israelis.
"Would you please raise your hands in support?" Arafat asked.
Almost immediately, hands shot up. About 500 to 600 Palestinian leaders sitting in the hall were eligible to vote. No tally was taken, but a majority of those believed eligible to vote raised their hands.
Clinton gives thanks
Clinton, who addressed the group of about 900 Palestinian ministers, lawmakers, social leaders and international guests, said the Palestinian action was a vote for peace.
"I thank you for your rejection -- fully, finally and forever -- of the passages in the Palestinian charter calling for the destruction of Israel," Clinton said. "By revoking them once and for all you have sent a powerful message, not to the government, but to the people of Israel. You will touch people on the street here. You will reach their hearts there."
Clinton's visit has been dogged by the presidential impeachment process in Washington. He was asked about it with Arafat standing by his side yesterday, and he asserted that impeaching him was not in the nation's interest.
In Gaza yesterday, Clinton focused on the Palestinians and their suffering.
Accompanied by his wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea, Clinton was given a colorful, red-carpet welcome in Gaza, where he arrived by helicopter at the newly opened Palestinian-controlled airport amid a flutter of Palestinian and U.S. flags.
Speaking later, with conviction and emotion, Clinton recognized both the pain and the promise of the Palestinian people. In a speech addressed as much to the Israeli public as to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the president conceded that many Palestinians have not benefited from the 1993 Oslo accords, which began the phased, land-for-security peace process.
"For too many Palestinians lives are hard, jobs are scarce, prospects are uncertain and personal grief is great," said the president.
Clinton, who a day ago professed unwavering U.S. support of Israel, acknowledged the Palestinians concerns with Israel -- settlement expansion, land confiscations, house demolitions and the imprisonment of their family members.
But he also noted that the Oslo accords had given Palestinians the chance to govern themselves in their own cities. The Palestinians have experienced other gains: an elected legislative council, a new airport and a relationship with the United States.
"I believe you have gained more in five years of peace than in 45 years of war," said Clinton.
He encouraged Palestinians to persevere for peace. And as he told Israelis in a speech Sunday evening, the president said a true and lasting peace can only be achieved through recognition and respect of the other.
"The fulfillment of one side's aspirations must not come at the expense of the other," Clinton said. "Palestinians must recognize the right of Israel and its people to live safe and secure lives today, tomorrow and forever. Israel must recognize the right of Palestinians to aspire to live free today, tomorrow and forever."
U.S. support pledged
He pledged continued U.S. support, politically and financially, and suggested that a new page had been turned in U.S.-Palestinian relations. "I hope you have begun to see America as your friend," said the president to applause.
In the end, Clinton said, Palestinians and Israelis have to make the tough choices. "Now you and they must determine what kind of peace you will have," he said.
A land-for-security peace agreement signed by the Palestinians and Israel Oct. 23 in Washington required the Palestine National Council and other key Palestinian groups to reaffirm a 1996 decision revoking the controversial sections of the charter of the PNC, the Palestine Liberation Organization's parliament-in-exile.
As part of the Wye River Memorandum, Clinton agreed to journey here to witness the PNC vote and usher in the next phase of the peace agreement. But last week, amid widespread violence in the Palestinian territories, Israel suspended implementation of its part of the Wye accords. And Clinton's trip became a mission to salvage the peace agreement he worked so hard to negotiate in October on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
As Palestinians and Israelis accused each other of violating the Wye accord, the PNC charter issue increasingly became the screw on which the process would turn. Palestinians vehemently resisted Israel's demands that they take an actual vote.
But there were other complicating factors. The exact membership of the PNC is unknown because Arafat can unilaterally add members. Some members of the group live outside the area and didn't attend.
Others boycotted the meeting and it would be easy for them to say that the vote yesterday did not count.
More hurdles ahead
But there are still other hurdles to scale.
Israel maintains that the Palestinians have not fulfilled their commitments to confiscate illegal weapons, stop the campaign of incitement or renounce a decision to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in May 1999 at the end of the interim peace accords.
In his speech to the PNC last night, Arafat reiterated the Palestinians' intention to have their own independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital -- a pronouncement that the Israelis contend violate the peace agreements.
Another issue clouding the president's trip is the release of Palestinian security prisoners jailed by the Israelis. Israel has refused to free any prisoners who have "blood on their hands" or are members of Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes peace with Israel.
The Israeli policy, in accordance with the Wye agreement, ignited last week's clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers.
Pub Date: 12/15/98