After the Handshake: What Next? Palestinians: Getting Past Evil Images

September 19, 1993|By SUHA SABBAGH

"I am here to receive the Chairman of the PLO, Yasser Arafat," I told the guard at Andrews Air Force Base.

The words seemed strange to my ears. In 1989, I had interviewed Mr. Arafat in Tunis and as I flew back to the United States, I was worried about the repercussions that this visit might have on the future of my career in this country. After all, Mr. Arafat was considered by many as the leader of a terrorist organization.

The guard at the gate at Andrews showed respect as he directed me. His attitude formed a stark contrast, in my mind, with all the negative cartoon images that I had seen in this country over the years depicting Mr. Arafat as a terrorist, a murderer and so on.

The same contrast emerged again as I heard one senator say after meeting Mr. Arafat, "He is up on the issues, and his English is excellent." Another senator had asked for Mr. Arafat's autograph, and few cared about the stubble on Mr. Arafat's face or his military uniform.

Mr. Arafat realized the irony of his new situation. Asked by the press when the White House will recognize the PLO, he responded, "Well, yesterday I was in the White House," and grasping how strange this seemed, he added, "No, it is not a joke." Indeed the whole thing seemed quite incredible to most Arab-Americans who had become accustomed to the negative images of Palestinians personified in Mr. Arafat's image as a terrorist.

In 1989, I conducted a study on the image of Arabs in American popular fiction and found that 90 percent of all the novels that depict Arabs as terrorists were centered around the Arab-Israeli struggle. I had argued then that the stereotype is rooted in the foreign policy of this country; and, unless there is a transformation in the political realm, fighting negative ethnic stereotyping is cosmetic. I felt vindicated now on this account, XTC but I never imagined then that shifts in stereotyping can occur so quickly: Even the press gave Mr. Arafat a fair chance.

I was reminded of the ease with which this culture shifted from calling the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, to the loving reception that Mikhail Gorbachev received on his first visit to Washington. Outside the hotel in which Mr. Arafat was staying, a fair number of Washingtonians gathered to have a glimpse of the Palestinian leader while expressing sympathy toward him and empathy toward the Palestinians as people.

Will Israelis and Palestinians one day come to view each other with the same empathy? I grew up as a Palestinian in Israel, and I always knew that the problem between Israelis and Palestinians is a fight over national rights; anger and animosity toward each other were a symptom of the political problem but not the cause, as some argue. If the political problems are resolved, the relations between the two people will be normalized. But here lies the big "if" that has been only partially resolved on the South Lawn of the White House.

Like the majority of Palestinians, most Arab-Americans support the idea of a two-state solution where Palestinians will have the right of self-determination on land occupied by Israel in 1967. This has been the vision that dominated their political work in the last decade or so. Those who feel skeptical about the "Gaza-and-Jericho-first" option only question whether the second and third phase will fall short of implementation.

Arab-Americans and Palestinians unanimously agree that the recognition of the PLO by the United States will constitute a positive step in the direction of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.

There is an equal consensus that the ceremony on the White House lawn will benefit Arab-Americans because it diminishes negative ethnic images that have hindered many from participating actively in the political life in this country.

While all appreciate these positive steps, many worry whether the rights of four million Palestinians currently living outside the occupied territories will be addressed in future negotiations, as they also wish to know what the final borders of the Palestinian state will be.

As I stood on the White House lawn, the disbelief brought on the previous day as I watched Chairman Arafat's plane land at Andrews Air Force Base had turned to a moment of reflection. All the demonstrations in which Arab-Americans demanded that this country recognize the PLO and in which the Palestinian flag was raised as a symbol of Palestinian rights passed quickly through my memory.

Now, that same flag was blowing in the wind over Mr. Arafat's hotel, symbolizing recognition of the PLO and the official reception that he was accorded. The handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Arafat, televised all over the world, symbolized the end of the struggle between Palestinians and the state of Israel and reflected their mutual recognition of one another.

All the symbolic trappings, all the language of the speeches, and the metalanguage of the ceremony pointed out the transformation in the political climate.

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