February 21, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 572

The PLO Covenant Was Never Abolished

February 21, 2024 | By Ze'ev B. Begin*
Palestinians | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 572

It is widely believed that, in April 1996, the PLO abolished its notorious Covenant calling for the liquidation of the State of Israel. This belief is based on PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's statement in his September 9, 1993  letter to Israel's then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin: "The PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist […] are now inoperative and no longer valid.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." However, the fact is that this crucial commitment was never fulfilled. In order to understand the gap between the false impression and the facts on the ground we must look back to those days and see exactly what transpired.

It was Wednesday, April 24, 1996, Israel's Independence Day. Thousands of guests were gathered for the traditional reception at the Tel Aviv compound of the Ministry of Defense. At the very same time hundreds of Palestinian National Council (PNC) members were convened in Gaza for a session at which the articles of the Covenant calling for Israel's destruction were to be abolished (a move that requires a two-thirds majority). Another significant event was approaching: early elections to the Knesset were set for May, initiated by the ruling Labor Party, and the amendment of the PLO Covenant was important for this party's electoral victory. In fact, it had now become crucial, because for several months, despite the Oslo Agreements signed three years earlier, Israelis had been witnessing horrific suicide bombings resulting in dozens of casualties.

The PLO leadership had repeatedly deferred the fulfilment of Arafat's commitment in his September 1993 letter to Rabin, but in those special circumstances the time to do so had finally come. As for the Israeli leadership, after its painful experience with Arafat's broken promises it was understandably taking no chances: it had dictated to Arafat word by word the required language of the PNC resolution. However, two days before the PNC session, Arafat notified Prime Minister Shimon Peres that it would not work – the agreed-upon text would not be endorsed by the required majority in the PNC. Without delay, another, milder text, was prepared and agreed upon by Arafat and the Israeli government. We learned of this maneuver only two years later, when it was publicized by Yoel Zinger, the legal advisor of Israel's Foreign Ministry, who was among those who had worded the resolution dictated to the PLO (see "The Truth About the Covenant," Ma'ariv, June 19h, 1998, in Hebrew).  Thinking the matter closed, the government's seniors waited in Tel Aviv for the expected note from Gaza. The moment it came the good news was announced with great fanfare by the prime minister: "This is the most important ideological event in the history of the Middle East in the last hundred years."

But it was not. It took several hours for the PLO press agency WAFA to publish the official text of the PNC resolution in Arabic. Yigal Carmon, until 1993 the counterterrorism advisor to prime ministers Rabin and Shamir, sent it to me, and later that evening I brought the text to Professor Yehoshua Porat, a leading expert on the Palestinian national movement. After reading it carefully he told me: "This is a hoax".

And that is exactly what it was. Arafat had cheated again and disregarded the second wording he had agreed on with the Israeli Government. The trick used by the PLO will no doubt be familiar to any reader who has ever decided to stop smoking or go on a diet but never actually did. The official PNC statement stated that "the PNC has decided to amend the articles of the Palestinian National Covenant […] [and] has authorized the Judicial Committee to formulate a new Covenant".  The PNC only "decided to amend" the Covenant, but the Judicial Committee never convened and no amendment ever took place. Former Israeli Finance Minister Yoram Aridor remarked at the time that "Arafat does not respect agreements but he has a great respect for covenants". 

The farce reached its peak when, in the weeks after the passing of this PNC resolution, PLO leaders were asked how many articles would be struck from the Covenant. Haidar Abd Al-Shaffi said two. The PLO representative in Washington DC said six. Nabil Sha'ath was not sure: "I have a feeling that the number of cancelled articles is sixteen," he said. PNC chairman Salim Za'anun was not so vague. He stated plainly, three weeks after the PNC session, that "there are still no specific articles that [we] have decided to remove from the Covenant."

Immediately after the PNC session, all its resolutions were published in a large ad in the Palestinian press, except for the resolution concerning the Palestinian Covenant. The reason was simple: The Israeli government understood it had been cheated but refused to admit it, and therefore negotiated a new wording with the PLO, which would be included after the fact in a letter by Arafat to Prime Minister Peres. On April 29, 1996, five days after the PNC session in which the PLO Covenant had been "amended", the IDF Chief of Intelligence announced in the Knesset that the final wording of the PNC resolution had not yet been agreed upon. Eventually, the Israeli pressure bore fruit, and instead of the original version, "decided to amend," Arafat wrote to the prime minister in English that the PNC had resolved that the Covenant was "hereby amended by canceling the articles that are contrary to the letters exchanged between the PLO and the Government of Israel on 9-10 September 1993." The date of Arafat's letter to the government of Israel in which the (false) version of the resolution was included was May 4, 1996, ten days after the PNC session.

Thus, it was all a hoax in which both parties took part. Two years later, in January 1998, in a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton, Arafat listed 28 articles of the PLO Covenant that had been cancelled or altered. However, it should be stressed again that no article had actually been changed. The original Covenant in its evil entirety was still valid, and a second round of the PNC bluff was therefore needed. The next grand show was produced one year later, in December 1998, when the PNC convened in Gaza in order to – once again! – cancel the poisonous articles in the PLO Covenant, this time in the presence of President Bill Clinton. The hall was full of PNC members and many others. The vote took place by acclamation: all those present who were in favor of abolishing the Covenant articles were asked to raise their hands – but the raised hands were not even counted. Twenty-five years later, one fact is certainly clear: to date no alternative version of the murderous PLO Covenant has been put forward.

"So what?", one may ask. True, these are merely words, but they are not trivial. The PLO leadership never extracted the venom from the PLO Covenant.  The fact that this document, including its message that the Jewish State of Israel is destined to perish, is still valid signifies both the unwillingness and the inability of the PLO leadership to change its attitude towards Israel. A peace treaty between two rival parties must include a specific article in which the parties declare "an end to all mutual claims"– but the PLO cannot and will not sign such a document. For them, the goal is still the establishment of a Palestinian State stretching "from the River to the Sea", thereby eliminating the Jewish state.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; the key-shaped pin on his lapel indicates his commitment to the  Palestinian refugees’ "right to return” into Israel (Image:, May 15, 2023)

One effective tool for the realization of this plan is the implementation of the "right to return" of millions of descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees to their original homes within the state of Israel. The small key on Chairman Mahmoud 'Abbas's jacket lapel stresses his commitment to this goal. Paying monthly allowances to the families of murderous terrorists is another way to demonstrate this approach. And since they refuse to abolish their Covenant, the PLO cannot be "renewed" as expected by some leaders. Thus, all maneuvers aimed at taming the PLO are just solemn diplomatic nonsense, and the political concept of the "Two State Solution" is stillborn.   


A shorter version of this article was printed in Ha'Aretz on December 19, 2019.  


* Ze'ev B. Begin is a senior fellow at MEMRI.  

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