For the first time ever, Yasser Arafat told an American official - Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah - that his Palestine Liberation Organization's covenant no longer calls for the overthrow of Israel.
"They have changed it. (The Palestinian National Covenant) has been superseded by the declaration of independence (made in December), which specifically recognizes Israel and what they call the two-state doctrine - Israel and Palestine existing side by side," Owens told the Deseret News Tuesday."That is the big issue that's worrying a lot of Israelis and American Jews. They say, `Sure, he says that he's going to stop violence, but his charter calls for the abolition of the Jewish state.' "
Owens was reached by telephone during a stopover in New York upon his return from Tunisia, where he met with Arafat and other top PLO officials for more than four hours Monday.
The meeting by Owens, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, was the first substantive discussion between Arafat and an American official since a year and a half ago, when Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., met with him.
Owens said Arafat offered other signs - besides saying PLO covenants have been changed to no longer seek Israel's overthrow - to show that his group sincerely wants to find a peaceful solution to conflicts in the Middle East.
"He also said he is willing to meet with any Israeli secretly or publicly and welcomes interviews by Israeli journalists," Owens said.
Owens said he also suggested that Arafat try to persuade other Arab nations to recognize Israel's right to exist as openly as has the PLO.
"He's trying," Owens said. "He agrees that it helps his position, as well as makes the Israelis more comfortable. And he understands that the Israelis have to come to know the PLO and what it's trying to do and to hear its peace proposals, which have workable opportunities in my view."
Owens said he feels Arafat is counting on peaceful negotiations to end conflict.
"That's their plea to everybody to help convince Israel to sit down and talk with them. They want the context of an international conference, but they're not hung up on that as the only possible format. They want some international supervision. But most of all they want the Israelis to recognize that they do in fact represent the Palestinians," he said.
Owens said that despite public perceptions often to the contrary, he found Arafat to be very warm and accommodating.
"I had a long, long list of questions. He was very patient and took them all. He responded candidly, and very straight-forward. Then he had a long list of questions for me," Owens said.
"There's no question that he represents moderation in the PLO, and that the PLO has renounced terrorism in fact and has cast their lot with peaceful negotiations."