Ashrawi aims for Palestinian Council Favored to win election, she will be watched for relationship with Arafat

January 20, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The Arab men sat around in plastic chairs, wearing robes and checkered headdresses and leaning importantly on their walking sticks. They peered through a rising haze of cigarette smoke at a woman with a slick modern haircut and a Western business suit.

Hanan Ashrawi finished her short campaign speech and the men broke into applause.

"You are the voice of the Palestinians," gushed one of the elders-- the traditional guardians of male privilege in politics. Mrs. Ashrawi grinned and took another drag on her cigarette.

Two years ago, Mrs. Ashrawi was the Palestinian face to the West. She was the smooth-talking, smart and savvy spokeswoman who gave the world a different image of Palestinians than the stubble-chinned Yasser Arafat.

Now she is on the hustings in Jerusalem, making speeches in frigid bare halls, courting sheiks and laborers, kissing babies and shaking hands to be elected to the Palestinian Council.

Palestinians go to the polls today in their historic, first national elections. They will elect a president and an 88-member legislative council to oversee the autonomous areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip gradually being relinquished by Israel.

One million Palestinians are eligible to vote. They will choose from among nearly 700 candidates for the council and two candidates for president: Mr. Arafat and long-shot challenger Samiha Khalil.

Mrs. Ashrawi is considered a shoo-in for one of seven council seats from Jerusalem. She would likely win one on her own, but her chances are further improved because two of the seats are reserved for Palestinian Christians. Mrs. Ashrawi is Christian.

But her real test will begin after the election. She will be watched to see if she will establish her own power base and act as a check on the excesses of her former boss, Mr. Arafat.

The American-educated Mrs. Ashrawi is seen as the logical voice in the new council for advocating Western-style democracy, and as a possible critic of Mr. Arafat if he fails to deliver it.

"This electorate is very sophisticated. They are going to want to vote for people with a strong independent streak," said lawyer Jonathan Kuttab, another candidate in Jerusalem. "Hanan has a very strong independent streak."

It is a tightrope for Mrs. Ashrawi. If she is too critical of Mr. Arafat, she may be isolated from the power that still revolves around him. But if she ignores abuses of democracy by the Palestinian Authority, she will turn her back on the populist principles that she has preached so often and so visibly in criticizing the Israelis.

"I'm nobody's rubber stamp," Mrs. Ashrawi said in a midnight interview after a long day of campaigning this week.

But she also has shown an aversion to crossing the quick-tempered Mr. Arafat in public. As though in proof, she quickly adds, "I never target individuals in my criticisms."

She very quickly may find that position a difficult straddle. Yesterday, for example, Palestinian police stormed into a television transmission office in Gaza Strip and cut off the fiber-optic link for foreign stations covering the election, another in a recent series of Palestinian intimidations of journalists.

It is just the kind of strong-arm action that Mrs. Ashrawi used to condemn with withering scorn when done by the Israelis. And it is just the kind of abuse of democracy that has characterized Mr. Arafat's fledgling Palestinian Authority.

"Of course, I criticize whenever I see something that I don't think is right," said Mrs. Ashrawi. "I speak out and will continue to do so. It's a question of ethics."

On the campaign trail, Mrs. Ashrawi does seem able to bridge chasms. She is an academic (with a Ph.D from the University of Virginia in medieval literature) who appeals to villagers, a modern candidate liked by traditionalists, and a woman who can draw votes from men.

But it is among women voters that Mrs. Ashrawi's candidacy seems to generate the most excitement. They come to her campaign appearances, nervously stepping forward when Mrs. Ashrawi encourages them to come out from their customary silent spot behind the men.

"I think she's great. I will definitely vote for her," said a giggling 18-year-old, Samiya Kumber, who hailed Mrs. Ashrawi at a campaign stop.

In a home in the poor neighborhood of Silwan on the outskirts of Jerusalem, 71-year-old Khamesa Oweis said she is too ill to cast a ballot. A traditional woman in village dress and wearing a scarf about her head, she clucked disapprovingly about "these modern women," but her face lighted up in a smile at the mention of Mrs. Ashrawi.

"I like any woman who respects herself," she said.

Her husband, Mustafa Oweis, 72, agreed. "She will get my vote. She represents the Palestinians well," he said.

There are a few quiet mumblings that the former Bir Zeit University professor was a "parlor revolutionary" during the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

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