Woman of the Year

Review of This Side of Peace: A Personal Account, by Hanan Ashrawi. 310 pp., Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Avi Shlaim

New York Review of Books, 8 June 1995.

Published without the review of A Voice of Reason: Hanan Ashrawi and Peace in the Middle East, by Barbara Victor. 310 pp., Harcourt Brace, 1994.

At the Madrid peace conference in late October 1991, for the first time in a century-old conflict, the Israelis lost the battle for hearts and minds to their Palestinian opponents. There was a palpable feeling of history in the making as Dr Haidar Abdel Shafi, the elderly physician from Gaza and head of the Palestinian delegation, delivered his opening address in the Grand Palace. Of all the presentations of the Palestinian case made by official spokesmen since the beginning of the conflict, this was undoubtedly the most eloquent as well as the most conciliatory and convincing. It would have been inconceivable for the PLO, despite all its growing moderation, to make such an unambiguous peace overture to Israel. The PLO, in any case, had been excluded from the Madrid conference by the right-wing Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Shamir, evidently troubled by the conciliatory tone of Dr Abdul Shafi's speech, passed a note to an aide. One spectator speculated that the note said: "We made a big mistake. We should have insisted that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."

    The principal author of this remarkable speech was Dr Hanan Ashrawi, the spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation. Hanan was born in Nablus on 8 October 1946 to a wealthy Christian middle class family. Her father, Daud Mikhail, was a doctor who joined in the resistance against British rule in Palestine. After the loss of Palestine in 1948, the family lived under Jordanian rule in Ramallah in what became known as the West Bank. From the Friends Girls School in Ramallah Hanan went to study English literature in the American University in Beirut. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank in June 1967 turned Hanan overnight into an exile. It also marked the beginning of her active involvement in the Palestinian revolution. In 1970, barred by the Israeli authorities from returning home, she enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in medieval English literature at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. At Charlottesville she combined radical political activism with her esoteric academic pursuits and began to make a place for herself in the new world at a time when the word "Palestinian" was synonymous with terrorist.

    A general amnesty for Palestinians enabled Dr Ashrawi to return home to Ramallah and to reunite with her family in 1974. She settled into academic life as faculty member and head of the English Department at Birzeit University. From the outset, the occupation and the outspoken academic did not get along. Following her participation in a few student demonstrations and protest marches, she was arrested and hauled before a military judge. "What are you doing here today" asked the judge after she chose to take her oath on the New Testament rather than the Koran or the Old Testament. "That's a good question," she replied calmly. "A very good question. Maybe you can answer it." This experience spurred her to establish the University Legal Aid Committee to provide support for Palestinian students. Outside the University framework, she and a group of other women started feminist study groups and held consciousness-raiding sessions on the subject of gender in different aspects of Palestinian life.

    Hanan's husband was not a political activist but a musician, a drummer in a rock band which used Arabic lyrics with contemporary music, named Emile Ashrawi. They got married in 1975 and had two daughters, Amal and Zeina. With a supportive husband and a happy home life, Hanan was able to continue her manifold nationalist, feminist and humanist activities. Like many of her colleagues in Birzeit University, she had some contact with the leftist political factions of the PLO but she did not join any one of them. With the passage of time, she moved closer to the mainstream Fatah movement while always retaining her political independence.

    The intifada, the spontaneous popular revolt against Israeli occupation which broke out in December 1987, drew Ashrawi deeper and deeper into politics. The intifada brought together the seemingly irreconcilable elements of Palestinian society in a joint quest for freedom which pitted the human spirit against the mighty Israeli military machine. It was a heady experience which, despite all the pain and suffering, released suppressed energies and imbued the participants with a sense of power, drive, and invincibility. Ashrawi was susceptible to the sense of exhilaration which charged the atmosphere. But she also learnt the meaning of organization, discipline and self-criticism as a means of reform. She took the lead in mounting a campaign of information and emerged as a bold innovator when it came to relations with the media. As a matter of policy, Palestinians had refrained from addressing Israelis in a public debate as a way of withholding recognition. This gave the Israelis exclusive access to the media and ample scope for blaming and misrepresenting the absent Palestinians. An invitation to debate face-to-face with Israelis on Ted Koppel's Nightline in April 1988 gave Ashrawi just the opportunity she was looking for to break away with the Palestinian tradition of reticence and boycott. She seized the opportunity to send out multiple signals: "to the world - that we wanted to be heard directly; to the Palestinians - that it was time to take the initiative and speak out; to the Israelis - that we were ready to take them on."

    Encouraged by the result of this first public encounter, Ashrawi and a group of other political "independents" formed the Political Committee which held many of its meetings in her house. The objectives of the committee were to brief journalists and foreign visitors, to provide a pool of accredited speakers to participate in conferences and seminars all over the world, to present creative options to the unified national leadership of the intifada, and to become a focus of political and diplomatic activity in the occupied territories. Such activity was illegal then but the danger only spurned them on. Apart from being risky, this activity impinged heavily on Ashrawi's home life for it was then that Zeina, her younger daughter, announced: "I have lent my mother to the peace process."

    The peace process between the Palestinians and Israel, which culminated in the famous handshake between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on 13 September 1993, is the main theme of Ashrawi's revealing and highly readable memoirs. The book, as its title indicates, is not a piece of diplomatic history but an inside account by one of the participants. "I feel compelled to narrate," she tells us in the Author's Note, "that side of peace which the standard textbooks of history and political science tend to ignore - a personal account of one player and the human dimension of an impersonal process." She also tells us that she was encouraged to write this account by Edward Said, her friend and mentor, who often lamented the lack of a Palestinian narrative to reveal in human terms their side of the truth.

    Hanan Ashrawi is not a politician by choice, politics being her second career. Her literary background, however, inevitably influenced her political style. Her command of English was an obvious asset in putting across the Palestinian case but, precisely because she was not a professional politician, she was able to offer a new perspective on the Palestinian struggle. She elevated the level of debate about Palestinian politics by focusing on existential issues, by articulating the hopes and fears of ordinary people, by dwelling on justice and morality. Being a woman probably made it easier for her to speak about feelings, emotions and human values and this touched the right chord with the Western audiences to whom she addressed herself. Although she presented her case with passion, and although she could be dogmatic, her listeners did not feel threatened by her. Even under severe pressure, she carried herself with dignity.

    Like Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi understands the importance of Palestinians telling their own narrative; unlike him, she also understands the requirements of pragmatic politics, the necessity of compromise not only with one's enemies but also with one's partners. Both of them are intellectuals with a passionate commitment to the Palestinian cause and considerable expository and oratorical skills. Both of them are at home in the realm of big ideas. The difference is that Ashrawi can translate these ideas into a plan of action whereas Said cannot or would not. Her approach to politics is informed by practical experience, by a capacity to balance conflicting considerations, which is conspicuously lacking in his case.

    It was these political skills and not just her mastery of the English language that commended Ashrawi to Yasir Arafat as an envoy to the American government. Arafat knew that she had no personal agenda beyond fighting for self-determination and that she would not threaten his position as the leader of the Palestinian political movement. Yet their relationship mirrored some of the tensions between the two major components of this movement: the inside and the outside, al-dakhil and al-kharij. Both the Americans and the Israelis wanted the center of gravity within the Palestinian movement to shift from the outside leadership in Tunis to the local leadership in the occupied territories, a shift which Arafat was determined to resist. However, in 1989 Arafat himself asked Ashrawi to meet with State Department officials and make a plea for upgrading the US-PLO dialogue. That was the beginning of the role she was to play for the next six years, a role which gave her an increasingly visible international profile.

    At the State Department Ashrawi met three of James Baker's aides, Dennis Ross, Dan Kurtzer and Aaron Miller who were later to be dubbed "the peace processors." By her own account, she was not exactly self-effacing:
Being, and perceiving myself to be, of the people and not officialdom, an envoy though not a diplomat, I exercised my option for directness and honesty. I brought with me an aspect of the innocence of the intifada, its willingness to confront, to take the initiative, to assert itself, and not to succumb to intimidation. But most of all, I brought to that encounter, and subsequently to all others, that one essential sine qua non that was to become the most salient quality of Palestinian political discourse: the human dimension.

A year later, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Yasir Arafat committed one of the most egregious blunders of his entire political career by embracing Saddam Hussein. That embrace plunged the PLO once again into the dog-house and exposed the Palestinians in the occupied territory to physical danger. Publicly, Saddam Hussein posed as the champion of the Palestinians; privately, when asked about the safety of the Palestinians should he attack Israel with Scud missiles, he is reported to have replied, "I am not separating lentils." The leadership of the inside had to steer a very careful course. For years Ashrawi and her colleagues had been trying to teach the language of peace: "Like Sisyphus we had laboriously rolled the rock of non-military solutions uphill. Now, it seemed with the glorification of Mars, the rock was not only about to roll back, but to crush us in the process."

    In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Ashrawi and a handful of leaders from the inside, led by Faisal Husseini, participated in numerous exploratory talks with secretary of State James Baker which helped to launch the Middle East peace process with the Palestinians on board. George Bush proudly proclaimed that the Gulf War laid the foundations for a New world Order. James Baker's task was to convene an international conference to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict and in this endeavour Palestinians were a useful but dispensable ally. Baker therefore leaned hard on the Palestinians. As prime minister Yitzhak Shamir kept stonewalling, Baker steadily intensified the pressure on the Palestinians. Any proposals that bounced off the Israeli brick wall, he tried to sell to the Palestinians as the only way of getting Israel into the talks.

    Baker and his aides shuffled back and forth between Israel and the Palestinians, carrying the carrot and the stick; the carrot, as Ashrawi ruefully observed, for the Israelis and the stick for the Palestinians. Baker developed a healthy respect for his unconventional interlocutors, as one journalist travelling with him reported to Ashrawi. Rather flippantly she replied that "After a six-hour meeting with Shamir, he'll find anybody likeable." In the course of these exploratory meetings, Husseini and Ashrawi resisted every attempt to create an alternative leadership to replace the PLO. Their role, as they saw it, was to represent the PLO, not to replace it. While forced to yield to most of Shamir's conditions on Palestinian representation in the planned peace conference, their long-term aim was to get the PLO on board, to gain them recognition, and ultimately to get them to negotiate with Israel directly and officially.

    Madrid was the mother of all Middle East peace conferences with the United States and the Soviet Union as co-sponsors, United Nations and European Union observers, delegations from Israel and several Arab countries, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and some five thousand journalists from all over the world. Hanan Ashrawi, the spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation, quickly emerged as the star of the show. The exclusion of the PLO from the show enabled her to project the Palestinian delegation as a people's delegation made up mainly of academics and professionals who had come to Madrid to present the cause of the people. PLO leaders wanted the opening address to be delivered in Arabic but Ashrawi persuaded them that it should be delivered in English because it was aimed primarily at the American public. In composing the address, Ashrawi was driven by the urge to capture in words the essence of the Palestinian experience and to turn it into an irresistible force for change. So moving was the speech that Dr Haidar Abdel Shafi, a gentleman of the old school, was afraid he would cry when delivering it. "Then cry," said the author, "the world will be crying with you."

    In the intervals between plenary sessions Ashrawi was constantly in the limelight, giving press briefings and interviews. The Israelis fielded a large professional public relations team but they clearly lost this round to Ashrawi. In the battle for hearts and minds, she was a formidable opponent. One of the Israeli experts described her as terrifyingly articulate. Her handling of the media was nothing short of brilliant. The press did not intimidate her and she did not suffer from stage fright. She believed that the press was after the truth and that the truth was her ally. At the final press briefing in Madrid, she ended by saying: "You have given me and the Palestinian people a fair hearing, and for that I'm deeply grateful." She received a standing ovation.

    The second stage in the American-sponsored peace process were the bilateral talks between Israel and the Arab delegations which got under way in Washington in January 1992. Dr haidar Abdel Shafi stayed on as the head of the Palestinian delegation which consisted largely of doctors and academics from inside while Dr Ashrawi stayed on as the spokesperson. One critic called these delegates "an arbitrary fistful" while the press depicted them as "the best and the brightest." The PLO leadership in Tunis was still excluded from direct participation in the talks but determined as ever to call the shots. This gave rise to an extraordinarily complex structure which included three elements: the delegation which conducted the negotiations, the Leadership Committee which was headed by Arafat's adviser, `rosy glow' Nabil Sha'th, and a Strategic Committee consisting of advisers and experts. Thrown together literally overnight, this diverse group of men and women functioned as a surprisingly coherent team.

    The constraint which more than any other impaired the work of the Palestinian team was constant interference from Tunis. Working with the PLO chairman had never been easy because of his autocratic and idiosyncratic style of decision-making and because he combines vanity and ineptitude in roughly equal portions. But now he began to develop an obsession with the threat of an "alternative leadership" which verged on paranoia. He feared that any progress made by the "people's delegation" would undermine the status of the PLO and his own position as the leader of the Palestinian movement. The analogy he cited was that of a drone used to fertilize the queen bee and then left to die. Another analogy was reviving the patient in order to make him sign his will and then leaving him to die or even finishing him off. To fend off this imagined threat, Arafat resorted to manipulations, divide and rule tactics, and petty intrigues. He was anxious to demonstrate that without his backing, no progress could be achieved in the talks. He pulled the strings from Tunis and he went to extraordinary lengths to show that only he could make decisions on behalf of the Palestinians.

    Hanan Ashrawi enjoyed a special position within the Leadership Committee both because she was the spokesperson and a media megastar and because of her close contacts with the Americans. She represented the  Palestinian side in many talks, formal and informal, with James Baker and his aides in the State Department and consequently she could speak with authority about the American position. But although liaison with the State Department was one of her official duties, it exposed her to the charge of being too close to the Americans. Certain individuals in Arafat's entourage, probably prompted by jealousy, took to questioning the reliability of her reporting of the American position and even insinuated that she had sold out to the Americans. Arafat himself was double-faced. In her presence he would be appreciative and ingratiating, calling her not only "a dear sister but the crown on our heads, taj rasna." Behind her back, however, he could be every bit as dismissive and malicious as his subordinates.

    If the attitude of the PLO leadership posed one set of problems for Hanan Ashrawi and her colleagues during the bilateral talks, the attitude of the Israeli negotiators posed another. Throughout the first five rounds of the Washington talks, the Palestinians tried to engage the Israelis on substantive issues but the latter remained slippery and evasive. They kept up the semblance of participation without addressing the real issues. That Yitzhak shamir wanted the talks to go nowhere slowly was an open secret. As far as the back-stage involvement of the PLO in the talks was concerned, Shamir preferred to bury his head in the sand, to play ostrich politics. Shamir's intransigence contributed to the defeat of the Likud in the June 1992 elections. A few days after the defeat, Shamir confessed that he had intended all along to draw out the negotiations for ten years and to build more settlements in the occupied territories which would render the talks irrelevant. The Labor Party's electoral victory gave rise to optimistic forecasts that peace was around the corner. "The real test is yet to come," cautioned Ashrawi, "whether Rabin the bone-breaker can be Rabin the peacemaker." To her dismay, even the modest expectations pinned on the new Israeli prime minister were quickly shattered.

    A third source of frustration for the Palestinians was the American reluctance to play a more active part in the management of the peace process except when Israel needed bailing out. The peace process started with two sponsors at Madrid but one disappeared and the other became a spectator. With the approach of the 1992 presidential elections, George Bush and James Baker relaxed their grip on the peace talks and allowed Israel to exploit its power to its own advantage. Predictions of impending electoral defeat transformed the Bush administration from a lame duck administration into a dead duck administration. The bottom line, however, was that no administration  was prepared to stand up to Israel because it did not pay political dividends. The Palestinians on the other hand, however just their cause might be, were seen as irrelevant in the making and breaking of political careers on Capital Hill and in the White House and therefore disposable. Among themselves the Palestinians joked that the Americans only sent them nonpapers because they looked on them as a nonpeople and that they did not respond to most of their memoranda because they regarded them as a nondelegation.

    When Bill Clinton succeeded George Bush as president, the pro-Israeli bias in American policy became more pronounced and more blatant. Clinton gave Israel a blank check and adopted a hands-off attitude to the Middle East peace talks. At the first meeting with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Ashrawi studied closely his spoken and nonverbal language but the signals were so few as to betray no personal involvement. The policy of the new administration, she observed, was characterized by hesitancy and vagueness. On the few occasions when the Clinton administration did present papers to break the deadlock in the talks, the papers had Israeli fingerprints all over them. By the summer of 1993, the Palestinian negotiators gave up hope that the Clinton administration would exercise a corrective influence on Israel, let alone come up with fair formulations.

    Consequently, Hanan Ashrawi became convinced of the need to change the negotiating framework and to get serious and discreet negotiations going between the PLO and the Israeli government. America's posture in the official talks in Washington also contributed, without her knowledge, to the alternative back-channel negotiations in Oslo between the PLO and the representatives of the Israeli government. The PLO had made numerous attempts to establish a back-channel to Rabin but Rabin did not respond. Oslo was the first back-channel that Rabin appeared to take seriously. Arafat, from his end, played a characteristically devious double-game. He kept the official Palestinian negotiators completely in the dark about the secret talks in the Norwegian capital. Moreover, when the Oslo talks moved forward, Arafat started issuing more hard-line instructions in a deliberate attempt to block the Washington talks.

    When Arafat, in yet another abrupt reversal of policy, instructed Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi to hand to Christopher a paper they considered unacceptable, they obeyed his instructions and promptly submitted their resignations. Arafat's arbitrary order was the straw that broke the camel's back. This time Ashrawi made no attempt to conceal her anger. "We cannot go on," she told Arafat to his face "with conflicting instructions, multiple channels, lack of a coherent strategy, inconsistent political decision making, total disregard for our structures, and lack of accountability and openness in our internal work." Next, at a specially convened meeting, she excoriated the PLO Executive Committee, accusing them of stabbing her and her colleagues in the back.

    On her next trip to Tunis, on 26 August, Ashrawi was told about the Declaration of Principles which had been initialed in Oslo. She was not surprised by the existence of a back-channel; what did surprise her was that a particular back-channel suddenly delivered. The next morning she and Faisal Husseini went to the office of Mahmud Abbas, whose nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, and studied a copy of the agreement. Her first reaction was one of shock. It was clear that the PLO officials who had negotiated this agreement had not lived under occupation for it did not commit Israel to cease all settlement activity, it postponed the question of Jerusalem, and it said nothing about human rights. Like Husseini, she registered her deep concern about the gaps in the agreement, the ambiguities, the lack of detail, and the absence of implementation mechanisms. While recognizing that the PLO had made some strategic political gains, as Abu Mazen pointed out, she also thought that the agreement had many potentially explosive provisions that could be turned to the disadvantage of the Palestinian side. Her main concern was not about being kept in the dark or even being used but about substance. In any case, it was clear to her when she read the document that one chapter was drawing to a close, another about to begin and that she should start preparing her exit.

    At the signing ceremony of the accord between the PLO and Israel on the South Lawn of the White House, Hanan Ashrawi sat in the tenth row. Ashrawi offered to write the speech for the former guerrilla chieftain to deliver in his new incarnation as world statesman, and she no doubt had it in her to produce a fitting sequel to the Madrid speech, but her offer was turned down. In the event, Arafat's speech was quite remarkable for its flatness and banality. Yet the choice of this speech, as someone told Ashrawi, was a conscious one. The implicit message was that her kind of language was over. "The next phase," she was told, "is not one for poets and intellectuals. It's the era of hard-core politicians, one in which slogans are the weapons of a struggle for power. Self-interest produces clichיs, not humanistic visions."

    Arafat himself made Ashrawi a number of job offers in his new administration which she wisely declined. The parting of the ways was only to be expected. For the self-styled President of Palestine had intended all along to follow the Algerian model in which the politicians returned from exile after independence to rule the country and to exclude from power the local leaders who had fought the French. Ashrawi was wise to preserve her political independence because Arafat's language is not her language, his values are not her values and his vision for the future is not her vision. Democracy and human rights are only two of the salient issues on which they do not see eye-to-eye. But the reasons she gave Arafat for declining his job offers were tactfully phrased:
We have to turn the page, close one chapter and begin another. I will not be part of any political structure, nor will I accept any official post. From now on, I will be pursing a different vision. I had entered the public political arena to serve the people and the cause, and for the last few years I've given it all I had. Now it's time to move on, for each phase requires its own instruments and vehicles, its own language and people.

Hanan Ashrawi moved on to establish and to head the Palestinian Independent Commission on Human Rights. She views the work of the commission as an important part of the process of institution-building which would hopefully help to lay the foundations for Palestinian statehood. In the meantime, the gulf between the expectations that attended the conclusion of the Oslo accord and the actual results is becoming more apparent by the day. Old habits die hard. Arafat has not renounced his "revolutionary" mentality in favor of a "state-building" one. The administration set up by him in the area so far confined to about 6.5 per cent of original Palestine, is undemocratic and unpopular and marked by growing repression. Thus, sadly, the head of the Palestinian Independent Commission on Human Rights has her work cut out for her.

    One puts down Hanan Ashrawi's memoirs with admiration for her courage and integrity and astonishment at her achievements. Rarely in the annals of human history have so many men owed so much to one woman. She rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Gulf War, during one of the most difficult phases in Palestinian history since the disaster of 1948. She was an academic with no constituency, no party, no power base, no organization and support from the leader of her movement which was at best erratic. Yet she threw herself whole-heartedly into political and diplomatic activity on behalf of her people and she was spectacularly successful in projecting a new image of Palestinian nationalism with a human face.

    Hanan Ashrawi was an ordinary woman, subjected over a period of years to the most extraordinary and unrelenting pressures, sucked into a vortex of petty manipulations, and yet she maintained her psychological balance and never lost her bearings. Nor did she allow fame and flattery to go to her head. It is this that is so remarkable about her story. She was the right person, at the right time, doing the right job and she also made her graceful exit at exactly the right moment. Yasir Arafat and some of the men who surround him in his seedy little statelet in Gaza compare with her like the pigeons of Trafalgar Square with the Bird of Paradise.

    One of the few positive things one can say about Barbara Victor's biography of Hanan Ashrawi is that it has an apt title. In a political movement which had its fair share of extremists, Ashrawi did indeed stand out as a voice of reason. But the book itself has very little to recommend it. Victor's knowledge of Middle East history is not just superficial but extremely shaky. She writes, for example, that the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1921 and provided for two states, Israel and Palestine, to exist side by side. Anyone who believes that would believe anything. Ignorance is compounded by political prejudice. Israel emerges from Victor's pages as snow white, whereas the Palestinians, in line with popular American stereotypes, are repeatedly described as terrorists.

    In chapter one of her book Victor poses a question: "Was Hanan Ashrawi a sincere advocate of peace, the voice of moderation, or was she a shrewd public relations ploy, gaining sympathy and respect for the Palestinian cause while the PLO remained steadfastly committed to its agenda of terror?" Victor does not answer this question directly. Instead she refers to "certain of her critics" who claimed that behind Hanan's cultured voice and moderate facade lurked a woman who was unwilling to compromise on any issue. Victor also quotes Israeli critics who insist that underneath Hanan's intellectual exterior lurks a hard-liner, that "despite all the words and rhetoric, she represents a terrorist organization that has changed neither its covenant nor its leader, a man identified with countless terrorist attacks." That some Israelis would say that is hardly surprising. What is completely lacking is any evidence to substantiate these allegations.

    Much of what Victor tries to pass as a biography does not rise above the level of common gossip. Some of the Palestinians that Victor talked to, who have nothing worthwhile to say but are nevertheless quoted at great length in the book, claim that Ashrawi is an unprincipled self-promoter, with a talent for seducing the media, who puts her love for her own words above the needs of her people. Curiously, it does not seem to occur to Victor that success breeds resentment and that success by a woman in a sphere traditionally dominated by men is liable to breed even more bitter resentment.

    Barbara Victor's biography was published six months before the appearance of Hanan Ashrawi's personal memoir of the role she played in the Middle East peace process. Any marginal value that the biography might have had was thus superseded by Ashrawi's infinitely more subtle, sophisticated informative and insightful account. The only two mildly interesting questions prompted by reading Barbara Victor is how a person of Hanan Ashrawi's stature got mixed up in such a shabby literary venture and why any publisher should have seen fit to publish such an irredeemably shoddy book.