Pragmatist will speak for Palestinians: Faisal Husseini's presence means the peace talks can tackle the real issues, writes Sarah Helm in Jerusalem

EXACTLY five years ago a group called the Committee Confronting the Iron Fist issued an appeal to Yitzhak Rabin, then Israeli defence minister, whose 'iron fist' was being brutally used against Palestinians. The committee called for the release of its founder, Faisal Husseini, from an Israeli jail, saying his latest arrest exposed Mr Rabin's 'deep fear of public political activity'.

Mr Husseini, now the undisputed political leader in the West Bank, is expected to be welcomed by the same 'iron fist' to sit at the negotiating table in the Middle East peace talks starting tomorrow. Although already the delegation's head, until now Mr Husseini has been barred by Israel from official membership of the Palestinian team. Mr Rabin, now Israeli Prime Minister, has been persuaded by the US that Israel must start talking to people who count, before the only Palestinians with clout in the occupied territories are militants of Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement).

Mr Husseini personifies almost every demon in Mr Rabin's mind. He was born into the Husseini clan of Palestinian nobility - and 'noble' is a word often used of him. He is the son of Abdel Kader Husseini, viewed by Palestinians as their greatest hero for his nationalistic struggle in the 1930s and 1940s. He is loyal to Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman. And he is also a Jerusalemite, respected in Arab east Jerusalem almost as a feudal elder. As such, his very presence in the talks challenges what Israel holds most dear: that Jerusalem is - and will forever be - under Israeli sovereignity.

But this quiet, honest, ascetic man has none of the zeal of the extremist. Not a charismatic leader, his solid somewhat dour countenance is that of a determined pragmatist, who may yet prove Mr Rabin's best ally.

Faisal Husseini was born in Baghdad in 1940, where his father was in hiding from the British Mandatory authorities in Palestine. The family had moved to Cairo by the time of Abdel Kader's death in battle near Jerusalem in Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

In the 1960s Mr Husseini took up the PLO banner, training in military camps in Syria. When he returned to live in Jerusalem after the 1967 Arab- Israeli war his first arrest was for storing weapons for the PLO.

By the mid 1970s, however, Faisal Husseini was developing his own ideas about the way forward for the Palestinians, talking about non-violence and passive resistance and compromise, accepting a two-state solution early on. During his periods in jail he learnt Hebrew, and later made several contacts with Israelis.

Moshe Amirav, a former Likud member, recalls one such secret meeting with Mr Husseini in 1985: 'It was a very personal encounter. I was struck by the fact that he had no anger or hatred. He told me there was a time when he could not say the word Israel. 'Now I am saying it. It is not easy. But I realise we both have to live here', he said.'

Observers say Mr Husseini has never worried that his pragmatism might be a betrayal of the cause for which his father died. 'He feels he is minimising the damage. His father carried the gun and he the olive branch but for the same cause,' says Albert Agazarian, an authority on Palestinian affairs.

Emerging in the 1980s as the prime mover in the occupied territories, Mr Husseini was both wooed and persecuted by Israeli leaders, who in their attempts to promote a 'moderate' Palestinian local leadership to counter the PLO, could never quite reconcile themselves to a figure so closely tied to Mr Arafat as Mr Husseini.

And, in the unique nature of Palestinian 'inside-outside' politics, Mr Husseini is always having to dance to the different tunes of his leadership in PLO headquarters in Tunis. Mr Arafat may pump up the status of his followers inside the occupied territories where it suits him, but is careful always not to diminish the outside leadership along the way. He holds Mr Husseini's purse strings and, in the final analysis, tells him what to say. He may view Mr Husseini as a Palestinian prime minister one day, but only with himself as president.

While Mr Husseini has gained in authority on the diplomatic stage, his support on the Palestinian streets, where no benefits are seen from the talks, has slipped away.

His people in Jerusalem line up like supplicants to see him, believing still that 'Faisal will solve it', whatever it may be - from rent disputes to family fights.

But the streets in the occupied territories have a way of setting their own course. When the intifada started in 1987 Mr Husseini was in jail and is said to have been as surprised by the uprising as the next man.

In addition, Mr Husseini has faced new criticism of late among his own political entourage in Jerusalem. Some say he is developing a penchant for political bureaucracy.

The news that he will be invited to join the delegation has set off a flurry of excitement in Jerusalem that perhaps some of the charade of the talks may be about to fall away as Israel moves closer to talking to the PLO. But there are also fears about the threat from extremists who see the talks as a sell-out.

Mr Husseini once told James Baker, then US secretary of state, that he was 'talking to a dead man'. Some say he has inherited a 'martyr syndrome' from his father. One close associate says: 'He would view his own assassination with a sense of fulfilment. He believes he is part of history unfolding. I can see it in his eyes.'

MARJ AL-ZOHOUR - Tank fire yesterday hit the hills overlooking the tent camp of nearly 400 Palestinian deportees, security sources said, AP reports. The brief barrage was on the eve of a planned march by the deportees toward the Israeli army checkpoint at Zommaraya to protest against the resumption of peace talks.

(Photographs omitted)

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