Zehdi Terzi

First PLO representative to the UN


Zehdi Labib Terzi, diplomat: born Jerusalem 20 February 1924; PLO Permanent Observer to the UN 1974-91; married 1960 Widad Awad (died 1987; one son, one daughter); died Amman 1 March 2006.

The many journalists and diplomats who consulted with him over the years remember Zehdi Terzi fondly. It would be difficult to demonise as a fundamentalist terrorist someone whom the Patriarch of Jerusalem had dubbed a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, or whom his daughter Karimah remembers as a feminist who admonished her, "BSc, MSc, PhD - and only then Mrs." None the less, for 16 straight years, he was America's most unwanted if you judged him by the New York tabloids and the Congressional Register.

Terzi was an almost archetypal Palestinian figure. Born in an ancient Greek Orthodox family in Jerusalem under the British Mandate, he had hoped to end his days in the city, but, he wistfully pointed out to a radio interviewer in 1988, "I can't go back home." Friendly, courteous and dignified, he was firm in his nationalist principles. When after long and discreet negotiations Israel finally offered to let him back to join his brothers and sisters in East Jerusalem, he could not bring himself to apply to those he considered illegal occupiers for a visa, so he died, as he had lived for three decades, in exile.

Under the British Mandate he had studied at Terra Sancta College and graduated from law school in 1948, the year of the partition of Jerusalem and Palestine. In Beirut in late 1959 he met Widad Awad, a Chilean descendant of an earlier generation of Arab refugees, from the Ottomans. They married within months, on his birthday in 1960. She died in his arms, in New York, in 1987.

An early associate of Yasser Arafat, within months of the foundation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1964 Terzi became its emissary to Brazil. He was part of the delegation that in November 1974 accompanied Arafat to the United Nations in New York and secured recognition there, of sorts, for the PLO. The General Assembly affirmed the Palestinians' right to self-determination and independence, and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and property, and recognised the PLO as their representative. The resolution gave the PLO almost all the attributes of statehood except a vote.

When Terzi arrived as the first Palestinian "Permanent Observer" to the UN in 1975, he was soon reminded that the US had vigorously opposed the resolution. For the US and Israel, the PLO was a terrorist organisation. Although the mission was covered by the UN Headquarters agreement, grandstanding American politicians kept trying to close it down.

The pressure was continuous throughout his time at the UN. In 1986, for example, the State Department refused him permission to travel to Harvard Law School to debate with Professor Alan Dershowitz, provoking a lawsuit that went all the way to the US Court of Appeals. Perhaps the strangest of the court battles that put Terzi in the headlines was in 1982, when a New York judge overturned the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fred Sparks's bequest of $30,000 to the PLO. That Sparks was himself Jewish added an extra piquancy to the case.

However the most notorious collateral damage of these cases was a former Congressman who had, in his own words, "a 100 per cent voting record in support of Israel". Andrew Young, the former civil rights leader, Congressman and then US Ambassador to the UN, met Terzi "accidentally on purpose" at a lunch at the Kuwaiti Ambassador's residence in 1979. Young claims that the State Department and the Israeli foreign ministry both knew in advance about the meeting, but, once it was leaked, President Jimmy Carter fired him. The New York Daily Post headline had been "Jews Demand Firing Young", and the incident did much to damage relations between the black and Jewish communities.

Towards the end of Terzi's UN career, as the intifada raged on, he helped formulate the strategy that may annoy Israel even more: the use of UN resolutions and international law to establish Palestinian rights. It was a strategy he encouraged when he left New York in the hands of his deputy, Nasser el-Kidwa, currently Palestinian Foreign Minister, to become special adviser on international and UN affairs to Arafat in Tunis, where he was to spend the remainder of his days, until going to Jordan for (unsuccessful) medical treatment.

Travel to New York is only marginally less difficult for dead than living Palestinian diplomats. Terzi's children are struggling to get clearance to take his remains to the plot in New Jersey where he can join his wife.

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