Arafat Declines to Clarify Stand on PLO Charter

Times Staff Writer

In the face of sharp criticism from rival Palestinian leaders, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat refused Wednesday to clarify his use of an ambiguous French word that has stirred hopes of progress toward peace in the Middle East.

“I did not come here to give a course on language and law,” Arafat snapped at reporters at a press conference at the Institute of the Arab World. “You can find the translation in the dictionary.

“It is enough that some people, including President Mitterrand, understand the word.”

On Tuesday, after meetings with French President Francois Mitterrand and Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, Arafat employed the French word caduc , which is variously defined by dictionaries as “outdated,” “lapsed,” “decrepit,” “old-fashioned” or “null and void”--to describe the status of the controversial 1964 PLO charter calling for the elimination of the Israeli state.


Later he said he intended the word in a “specific, legal, technical” sense. The French radio network, RF1, reported that Arafat has translated the word into English as “superseded.”

In the extremely delicate peace process the PLO hopes will lead to an independent Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory on the West Bank, shades of meaning are important and ambiguities are sometimes preferred.

The PLO charter, which speaks of the “liberation of Palestine” as a national duty and calls for the elimination “of the Zionist presence from Palestine,” has been cited by Israelis as one proof that Arafat’s acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist and his renunciation of terrorism last year did not represent a true policy change.

The use of the French term by Arafat, who does not speak French, has put the word caduc at the center of speculation about the achievements of the unprecedented “official” visit to France, a step many feel will eventually lead Arafat to the United States.

The daily tabloid Liberation published an enlarged dictionary definition of the word on its front page Wednesday. That august protector of the French language, the Academie Francaise, jumped into the fray, pointing out that the word dates to the 14th Century in France but has been used for legal matters since the 16th Century.

By the end of the day, politicians and journalists had created an apparently new noun-- caducite or “the state of being caduc “ to describe the affair. An anchor on the evening broadcast said: “It all revolves around one word--a word that shocks, a word that grates, a word that surprises. . . . “


In short, for the verbal French, it could not have been a more satisfying official visit, despite--or possibly because of--the uncertainty of what was actually said.

For his part, Mitterrand--who has received serious criticism from France’s large Jewish population for inviting Arafat--was pleased. According to aides, Mitterrand had hoped to win some concessions from the PLO before visiting President Bush later this month.

In an effort to push the slow-moving peace process along, he had pressed Arafat on Tuesday to clarify the status of the charter. “This was the first sign of clarification,” Mitterrand said Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the State Department in Washington said: “We see this as a reinforcement of his prior statement acknowledging Israel’s right to exist.” A decision by the Palestine National Council, the organization’s legislative body, “formally amending or abrogating the charter would be the kind of action we would certainly applaud,” spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler added.

Both Israeli leaders and Arafat’s political rivals in the PLO reacted negatively to his statement.

George Habash, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist hard-line faction, said he was “horrified.”


“We shall show Arafat and the world that the PLO charter remains very well alive,” Habash told the Associated Press. “Arafat has no right to take such decisions.”

An Israeli spokesman, meanwhile, dismissed Arafat’s statement as “rhetorical juggling.”

Reacting to Habash’s strong criticism, Arafat said: “That’s an expression of the Palestine democracy. Everyone has the right to state his point of view.”