Palestinian shines in spotlight of talks Pragmatic Ashrawi displays calm, poise

November 03, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

MADRID, Spain -- Almost everyone understood the rules of the game: The Middle East peace conference would open with formal speeches, and only afterward would the real work begin -- the efforts by armies of spokesmen to shape and reshape public opinion.

Most of the parties played the game in ways that reflected their national character, including their anxieties. In the process, the spokesmen became as familiar to television viewers as the region's prime ministers and presidents.

Israel, always eager to be heard, sent more spokesmen and handlers than official delegates. In the office assigned to Lebanon, a country known for chaos, no one was sure who the Lebanese spokesman might be or whether there even was one. In the Syrian office, the official spokesman chatted amiably with Westerners but did his best to prevent Israelis from getting in the door.

The Palestinians often outperformed them all, and Hanan Ashrawi, a university professor of English from the West Bank, was their brightest star. Mrs. Ashrawi emerged as the Palestinians' most polished voice and, at times, their most skillful diplomat.

Some admiring Israelis liken her to two famous leaders of their own. In her public warmth, she is compared to former Prime Minister Golda Meir, Israel's motherly prime minister in the early 1970s. For her debating skills, she is compared to Abba Eban, who was his country's most articulate diplomat.

Members of Israel's government have been less complimentary. After Palestinian gunmen shot and killed two Jewish settlers last week, Defense Minister Moshe Arens blamed Mrs. Ashrawi.

Citing statements by her that violence would increase during the peace talks, Mr. Arens declared the attackers "were acting on her directives."

Mrs. Ashrawi was one of the most frequently quoted people at the Madrid conference without even being a member of an official delegation.

She arrived as part of a 15-member advisory team, a group organized to get around Israel's ground rules for the regular delegation.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir ruled out conducting formal talks with Palestinians from East Jerusalem or with anyone considered to have close ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mrs. Ashrawi was excluded on both counts.

She lives in Ramallah, a West Bank city, in a stone house not far from the local headquarters of the Israeli military government. Her Israeli-issued identification card lists her official place of residence as East Jerusalem.

In her politics, she is identified less as a moderate or a radical than as a pragmatist. She makes no secret of her loyalty to the PLO or of her belief that the organization erred by being inflexible in the past.

She also says Mr. Shamir's government is making a mistake by not talking directly with people such as her.

"We are not ashamed of the PLO," she said before going to Madrid. "We are very proud of it. If the Israelis close their eyes to reality, it doesn't mean the reality will disappear."

Mrs. Ashrawi, 45, has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Virginia.

Before politics became a full-time job, she taught at Bir Zeit University between the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus, a center of Palestinian intellectual ferment. Although Israel has kept the university closed for four years, it has continued to operate clandestinely.

Mrs. Ashrawi came to prominence thanks to "Nightline," the ABC news program. Producers of the program came to Jerusalem in 1988 to organize a televised debate between Palestinians and Israelis but quickly ran into problems. Most of the best-known Palestinians declined to participate, citing either a reluctance to appear on the same stage with Israelis or fear for their safety.

Mrs. Ashrawi had no such hesitation. On the air, she was rational and easy to understand.

Within a few months, she was appearing regularly on U.S. television as a spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause.

She also came to the notice of Faisal Husseini, the most prominent Palestinian activist in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Since 1988, she has emerged as his near equal, the person to travel with him for high-level talks in London, Washington and Amman, Jordan.

Mr. Husseini, Mrs. Ashrawi and Zakaria Agha, a physician from the Gaza Strip, became the chief Palestinian contacts for Secretary of State James A. Baker III on each of his eight trips to the region. Friday, at the close of the Madrid conference, he publicly praised them for "personal courage in the face of enormous pressures" from Israel and from Palestinians opposed to the peace talks.

Mr. Agha became a member of the official Palestinian delegation. Mrs. Ashrawi and Mr. Husseini worked in Madrid as part of a group that wrote speeches, collected facts and figures, and devised strategy. They probably also acted as intermediaries between the official delegation and the PLO.

At her daily news conferences, Mrs. Ashrawi showed considerable skill, rarely groping for an answer, usually avoiding invective and often managing to smile. Her point, repeated over and over, was to present the Palestinians as a party equal to any other at the negotiating table and deserving of equal status.

She opposed moving the next stage of talks to the Middle East, saying the Palestinians did not have a country where they could properly act as host. She tried to defuse the issue by making it sound as if it had as much to do with hospitality as with politics. "We are prepared to move to the Middle East when we have an independent state," she said, presenting Palestinian statehood

as something to be realized in the near future. "We need to meet as equals."

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